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Jury Duty: My Horticultural Inspiration
updated: Sep 25, 2010, 10:00 AM

By Billy Goodnick

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Dateline: September 21, 2010; Santa Barbara County Courthouse - Jury Assembly Room
A few weeks ago, the U.S. Postal Service delivered an all-too-familiar, neatly folded brown and beige mailer. JURY SUMMONS. I get them every year; I'm special that way.

Perverse as it might sound, I used to look forward to jury duty. At least, that was the case when I was a municipal government employee. I've been called at least a dozen times, served on two local and two federal district court trials while receiving my full pay, playing hooky and spending many fascinating hours listening to testimony about international kidnapping, racist police abuse, brain surgery and a very twisted foster mom. I enjoyed using my Spock-like mental acuity to balance the scales of justice (I'm a Libra, after all).

This year? Not so much. In my post-layoff, Billy v2.0 life, I pretty much spend all my waking hours working, networking and engaging in shameless self-promotion.

If I'm not writing for Edhat, Fine Gardening Magazine, 805 Living, or putting the final edits on my Trader Joe's shopping list, I'm prepping for and teaching City College and adult education class, creating landscape designs for clients, shooting a TV show, or banging on my drums with King Bee. (I have people who eat and sleep for me.) So the prospect of eight days of testimony and who knows how many days of deliberation for an assault, battery and lewd conduct in an adult bookstore trial, for $15 a day plus mileage was about as attractive as the south end of a northbound peccary

The jury selection routine proceeded throughout the day without hearing my name. Though I tried paying attention to the interview questions thrown at the other prospective jurors, I was preoccupied thinking about my Thursday noon deadline for Edhat. What if I'm selected? What could I write about off the top of my head, in the scant two evenings I might have at my disposal?

Day one was almost over when I heard "William Goodnick." Taking my seat and grabbing the microphone, I was straight up with the Honorable Judge Ochoa. Name, rank, serial number, occupation, etc. (I even got in a landscape architectural joke about doing my French drains in English, then shipping them to Canada for translation).

When the judge asked, "Will serving on this trial cause undue financial hardship?" I replied, "Duh!" (Actually, that was my internal dialog; I think I said "Without a doubt.") I proceeded to explain, in moderated tones, the vision of the massive financial and contractual train wreck that would result.

"Mr. Goodnick. Thank you for your candor. You are excused from further service."

Breathing a sigh of relief, I was immediately awash in a Jack Bauer panic attack: My Edhat deadline! I recalled a rumor about how fellow Edhat contributor Ms. Lemonjelly had her thumbs bent back to her elbows just for submitting her column 20 minutes late. No way I'd let Ed's goon squad institute their dreaded anal/cranial inversion procedure on this writer.

# # # #

Fortunately, the subject matter for this column wasn't just staring me in the face; its palm fronds were caressing my lashes from the second story balcony of the Courthouse.

I realized as I stood in the breezeway that I'd never written about the phenomenal collection of plants that grace the County Courthouse, Santa Barbara's most inspiring architectural wonder. I hurried down the ornately tiled, Moorish-style stairway to the visitor information booth and forked over fitty cent for the Discover The Botanical Treasures of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse pamphlet. I had a delightful chat with Peggy Hayes, a volunteer docent who was quite conversant on the Courthouse's horticulture-she had been one of the proofreaders of the guide.

I headed home, grabbed a quick dinner and my camera, then zoomed back to the Courthouse in hopes of catching some magical late afternoon light.

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Though I've walked past the Anacapa Street frontage of the Courthouse hundreds of times, and was only vaguely aware of two towering trees that sit side-by-side near Figueroa Street, I was glad to have the guide map with me. I recognized tree number 47 (left in the photo), the Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) immediately, but was happy to confirm that tree number 8 was indeed a bunya bunya tree (Araucaria bidwillii). I'm partial to trees that sound like WC Fields named them. This is a giant you don't want to nap under, since the cones, which bear edible seeds, can weigh up to 15 pounds. Fortunately, the one at the Courthouse doesn't bear cones. The coolest thing about this tree is the near-perfectly symmetrical arrangement of the branches around the trunk.

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This close-up photo is the rare and endangered spaghetti and cranberry palm.

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What's so interesting about the varied plantings at the Courthouse is that there isn't a rigid theme. Palms, which most people think of in the context of tropical or Mediterranean gardens, are dramatic punctuation marks surrounding many of the landscaped areas. They share the beds with exotic giant bird of paradise, massive stands of split-leaf philodendron and giant yuccas. So it's always a bit of a disconnect when I behold a dense stand of coast redwood trees and this Port Orford cypress (Cupressus lawsoniana; incorrectly labeled Port Oxford on the map) massively framing the north side of the building near Santa Barbara Street. Fortunately, there are no rules about using a plant native to the coastal areas of Oregon and Washington and it sure fits the scale of the architecture.

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I spent my formative years in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles and bright red bottlebrush trees were everywhere. As a designer, I've never found them that interesting and, given the mess they make on paving, I've left them out of my plant palette. But seeing these marvelously tended, lavender bottlebrush (Callistemon citrinus ‘Jeffersii'), I'm going to rethink my knee-jerk prejudice and get my hands on a few of these for the right client's project. The grouping along the Figueroa side of the building has a cloudlike form with multiple trunks and luscious clusters of flowers that stand out beautifully against the whitewashed walls.

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Through an arch near Figueroa and Santa Barbara streets, I found my magical light, warming the older fronds of a Canary Island date palm (Phoenix canariensis) growing in the sunken garden.

# # # #

Okay, enough Mister Nice Guy. I've been perplexed for years at the apparent disconnect between the loving care that most of the Courthouse grounds receive from the County Parks Department staff, and misguided horticultural methods employed in some other beds. These inanely pruned glossy abelia bushes (Abelia grandiflora) look like the usual Crimes Against Horticulture I rail against. I have a hard time understanding what compels the gardening staff to scalp the lower part of each plant, exposing bare stems and creating these stiff, geometric forms. Abelia is a beautiful, graceful plant when left alone. A quick look at Sunset Western Garden Book confirms my long-held understanding of their care:

"To keep the shrub's graceful form, prune selectively; don't shear. The more stems you cut to the ground in winter or early spring, the more open and arching next year's growth will be."

I remember when these plants were treated exactly that way and they formed a beautiful, soft mass. The only excuse I can think of is that "free range citizens" might have started camping within the bed, and scalping the plants opens up visibility. But if that's the case, there are plenty of dense "habitat areas" under the redwoods that somebody should be thinning.

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Is there anyone other than the Courthouse staff who hasn't heard of the multiple benefits of mulch? Weed reduction, water retention, humus-building and reduction of erosion, to name just a few. Yet wherever I looked, Compulsive Raking Syndrome was evident, like in the juniper bed shown above. (And don't get me started on the fussy, time-consuming puff-ball pruning technique.)

It's ironic that the County's Water Conservation Division of the Public Works Department across the street (the same folks who sponsor the Garden Wise Guy TV show I co-host with Owen Dell and continually push the importance of mulching) haven't been able to pass the message on to the Parks Department folks. What better public demonstration location is there than this landmark garden spot?

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I need to rinse my palate now and sign off with a bit of lovely. This princess flower (Tibouchina urvilleana) grows on the Anacapa side and appears to be having a tough time. The foliage is stressed and yellow (maybe it needs a good layer of mulch?), but the flowers don't seem to care. When I think of cool, sensuous, exotic summer color, this is the plant that comes to mind.

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As the sun retired in the western sky, I figured I'd better get home and start pounding out these words. If I work fast enough, I'll keep Ed's goons at bay for another couple of weeks and be able to sleep with both eyes closed.

Bonus: For more info about the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, visit their website

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

 ROGER DODGER agree helpful negative off topic

2010-09-25 11:18 AM

15.00 Dollars a day now that's really something to stink about.


 COMMENT 107837 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-09-25 12:04 PM

Really enjoyable column, Mr. Goodnick.

I've always been in awe of courhouse architecture and landscaping--a building complex with interesting forms and details and SCALE and proportion. I love it that most of the landscaping matches it.

I love it: Terminal Raking Sydrome. Just saw some this morning and I thought the same thing. The local water provider needs to make use of those advertising signs that contractors use on a job, for prominent properties:

Mulch in action!
Saving water NOW!

Glad your jury experience was win-win.


 COMMENT 108031P agree helpful negative off topic

2010-09-26 12:17 PM

Loved this entry. And agree with the "don't shear". I take care of the grounds at our church and men with hedge trimmers make me quake in fear for our bushes. The bushes look so sad when a well-meaning volunteer attacks with a hedge trimmer when I'm not looking. Does no one understand proper "pruning"?


 COMMENT 108140 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-09-26 07:20 PM

Great article!


 COMMENT 108205 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-09-27 08:08 AM

Thanks Billy, for outing the bad practices at the courthouse. My own previous efforts working within the system fell on deaf ears. Let's hope someone who cares and matters takes your comments as constructive criticism and changes the care of the Abelias and Junipers. Those two minor improvements would not only result in a better-looking landscape, they would also reduce the amount of energy (electrical/fossil fuel) spent on unnecessary removal of plant growth, cut down on person-hours spent, and reduce the amount of green waste.

One more thing; a recent replacement of Thevetia thevetioides (Giant Thevetia), near the fountain on the west side, is in fact Thevetia nereifolia (Yellow Oleander). T. thevetioides is a larger plant, less common, with larger yellow flowers. The new plant is none of the above, but is often sold by nurseries as the rarer plant, and when the buyer doesn't know what to look for, will get the wrong plant.


 COMMENT 108439 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-09-27 03:10 PM

No maybe about it, princess flower likes its leaves is sun and "its roots in shade" so mulching is a must for a healthy happy plant.


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