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Plants I'll Never Use, Redux
updated: Jun 25, 2011, 9:45 AM

By Billy Goodnick

I'm sure the Pulitzer Prize committee frowns on cheating, but what can I do? It's noon Wednesday, my deadline is noon Thursday, and I'm sitting at a tiny table at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, shoving an overly mustardy ham sandwich into my yap, downloading photos, and praying Ed forgets he's already published this story. This is my week to post, but the conference is all consuming and there's no way I can write a new article worthy of you fine, loyal readers. So I'm dusting off one of my favorite stories from a 2008 (with a few edits, cuz I cringed rereading it) and adding new pictures. Enjoy my thoughts about plants I'd never, ever, ever use in anyone's garden.

High on my Most Loathed list: Algerian ivy and tam juniper. Keep them separated by at least one zip code.

:: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"Aahh, you don't know how to eat!" My mom was offering me "just a little bite" of pickled herring and I was making "that face." Lovely Linda of Lemona, as she was known, had opinions you'd expect of a strong-willed Brooklynite. She ascribed to the philosophy, "You have your opinion, I'll have the right one."

The herring didn't fall far from the tree. It just morphed from Linda's food pronouncements to my beef with tacky gardens. Ask my wife, Lin. A drive with me is a ponderous soundtrack of the transgressions I'm witnessing. I have no idea how she tolerates me, but as long as I keep my window up and speak at a civilized volume, she smiles and shuts me out.

My biggest gripe is with combinations of plants that have no business being seen together, let alone sharing the same ZIP code. They're the ones people mash together without regard for the plants' needs, (light, air, water, space for roots) assuring their slow, but inevitable demise.

Another thing that gets my thong in a twist is seeing aggressive, spreading plants like Bougainvillea ‘Rosenka' (the light pink one everyone plants) crammed into teeny tiny spaces. These botanical SUVs easily reach twenty feet across and launch salvos of thorny branches ten feet high.

"It's pretty. I'll just prune it."

Famous, illogical last words. People buy bougainvillea for its showy flowers (which sprout at the tips of the branches) ignore genetic reality. The result: endless work keeping their special friend from engulfing the house.

In the spirit of fun and with a desire to inform, I give you Five Plants I Wouldn't Put in Anyone's Garden (Even if You Threatened to Do Something Terrible to a Cute Little Kitty Cat).

Algerian Ivy (Hedera canariensis): This pestilent, rat-harboring curse of Mother Nature has to be first on my list, since it is an obnoxious, spreading plague. It knows no limits, will climb trees, swallow walls, and provide safe-haven for any number of lost objects. Wondering where Jimmy Hoffa went missing? Check the ivy. There is no reason for this plant to be propagated, sold, or purchased ever again.

Impatiens, aka Busy Lizzie (Impatiens balsamina): If you can buy it in front of a drug store, I don't want it in my garden.

Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis): I think it's the official flower of Santa Barbara. If that's the case, I nominate the giant Mexican white fly for our official bird, because the two go hand in hand. The flowers are quite pretty and the color range presents great design opportunities, but the threat of whitefly infestations and lack of effective non-toxic remedies means I just can't use them.

Tam Juniper (Juniperus sabina ‘Tamariscifolia') is an inoffensive plant so demonized by misuse I can't imagine planting it anywhere. It's used as a ground cover, growing 18" tall. Fine, but it also grows 15 feet across. Unfortunately, nurseries used to advice planting them three feet apart. Anybody see a problem here?

The result, seen throughout older neighborhoods, is massive green-topped blocks and brown sticks poking from the edges. Ersatz gardeners sometimes shape them into gawky tendrils terminating in green, Dr. Seussian green poofs. Better off buying a block of green Styrofoam, dropping it at the curb, and shutting off the water.

Azaleas and Camellias (Azalea indica/Camellia japonica) Two plants, but to me they're inseparable. When I moved to Santa Barbara in 1976 to work at La Sumida Nursery, these were the big sellers. They're beautiful in bloom, handsome in form and foliage, sport soft pastel colors winter and spring, and have absolutely no business setting down roots in Southern California. They evolved in high rainfall areas of Asia, thrive in acidic soil, and binge on heavy doses of organic matter. If a plant's survival depends on heaping helpings of peat moss, special feedings, and sucks up water like a Sham-Wow, it's off my list.

I strive to create gardens that are beautiful, useful and sustainable. This approach has a low tolerance for plants needing continual pruning, feeding, watering, and spraying. Besides, the more you have to mess with inappropriately selected plants, the uglier they turn out, and the more power-tool noise and air pollution we have to put up with.

I have a deep-seated belief that we should use plants that thrive with little or no help from us - plants that don't require life support to add beauty and usability to our gardens.

So that's it. Five plants you can scratch off your list.

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

 COMMENT 186880 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-06-25 10:09 AM

Hi Billy, I agree - tam junipers and Algerian ivy are the scourge of the earth and should be destroyed wherever found. And unfortunately it takes a nuclear bomb to destroy them.

Camellias and azaleas are my heartbreak. They grow like weeds in my hometown in northern California and I've made a few brave attempts since moving here (even with varieties that professionals assured me were adapted to our area) only to have my heart broken again and again. Alas, sadly, no more for me.

Pampas grass should also make the list. Even though nurseries no longer sell it, many people still have this nasty, sharp, vicious, and invasive plant propagating willy-nilly in their yards.

I also have a beef with olive trees, though attractive and adapted to our climate as they are. The fruitless ones aren't and I feel they should be limited to orchards and places where people don't mind having permanently stained footwear.


 COMMENT 186883 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-06-25 10:18 AM

Oh Billy, after reading this article I followed the link to your flickr photos. The "crimes against horticulture" gallery almost made me fall of my chair laughing! The titles and captions really make it - thanks!


 BILLY GOODNICK agree helpful negative off topic

2011-06-25 10:28 AM

Commenter 186880 (if you subscribe to Edhat you can have a real name!): I have some clients with thriving camellias (not so much azaleas) and we leave those alone, but to me, they aren't worth the gamble. Pampas, for sure, but isn't one of those hackneyed, go-to plants everyone fills up on at the Big Box.

Colin: Happy to have brought you a laugh, but next time you see Crimes Against Horticulture, wear a football helmet and you won't have to worry about falls. If you're at Facebook, Crimes Against Horticulture has a robust page with lots of folks posting their own pics and snarky comments. Come join the fun. It's here: link


 COMMENT 186899 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-06-25 11:06 AM

I grew up in Goleta and my mom had azaleas and camellias growing beneath the eaves on the north side of our house. They got almost no sun and lived very well and beautifully for many years. They were her pride and joy. It can be done, but they need the perfect spot.


 COMMENT 186900 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-06-25 11:07 AM

Your wife sounds like a GEM! I'm going to try her technique... LMBO


 FLICKA agree helpful negative off topic

2011-06-25 11:09 AM

Billy, You're great!! My yard is full of drought tolerant plants, except, of course, my quite large vegetable garden. I do have a Camelia; here 34 yrs ago when we bought our home. 2 of them then, dead so I cut way back and decorated branches w/shells (too hard to dig up). Well, after a few yrs, one came back to life. It's in a 3x4ft patch of soil surrounded by the house, steps and concrete patio. I have never fed it and forget to water, maybe it gets some every couple months if it's lucky. It's several feet taller than the house and covered in red Camellias from Oct-March. I trim it by using the branches of beautiful shinny leaves in flower arrangements when not blooming. Interesting plant!!!


 COMMENT 186925 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-06-25 11:58 AM

Thou shalt not suffer a Myoporum to live. Nasty speculators hedge.


 BECKY agree helpful negative off topic

2011-06-25 01:14 PM

I agree, but sin.

I love hibiscus, and have had some luck by using copious quantities of worm casings to fight the white flies. I also have a camellia by the front door, that's been here since before we moved in 20 years ago. Goleta, north side of the house, under the eves, so obviously that spot works. It's a Nuncio, and is deep green when not in bloom, with stunningly perfect white flowers when blooming. And of course, a big vegetable garden, because what's the point in having land if it doesn't feed you?

Hubby's plant rule is, "be beautiful, smell beautiful, or feed me, or you're out of here."


 COMMENT 186987 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-06-25 04:32 PM

We have two vintage camellias, one on the north side and one on the south. I think the south facing one gets some extra run off from the roof and a little bit of shade

But they have both survived for well over 50 years.


 COMMENT 187027P agree helpful negative off topic

2011-06-25 08:13 PM


We love living in it and causing mayhem...

THE RATS (you rarely ever see)


 COMMENT 187068 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-06-26 08:29 AM

Hi Billy, please add algerian, or cape ivy to your list. It is highly invasive and chokes out native plants when it "escapes" your yard and gets into the national forest. Same thing for fountain grass, vinca, myoporum, pepper trees, nasturtium, and cistus hybrids to name just a few.


 COMMENT 187077 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-06-26 09:28 AM

If you live in a watershed, which is most canyon areas, please do not plant or encourage cape ivy, any ivy, vinca, pepper trees, olive trees, tam juniper, eucalyptus, fountain grass, pampas grass, castor bean, acacia trees. The foothills are becoming nothing but weed patches because the fear of fire has caused denuding of the native vegetation and encouraged the non-natives. Non-natives burn hotter than natives, and do not provide food for the local insects and animals. Rats, rats, and more rats because we are losing our native predators. Rats love to hide in ivy and vinca. Poison is used and we loose more natural predators. A nasty cycle of habitat and native animal destruction. Thank you Billy for the information.


 GF JONES agree helpful negative off topic

2011-06-26 09:29 AM

I've seen Billy's comments about azaleas and camellias before, but I disagree--my experience has been positive. My parents had a beautiful camellia plant for 50 years. I have had 3 camellia plants for 35 years, and they are beautiful, don't take a lot of water, and take minimal care. Same with azalea plants. Like any plants, if they are in the right place that they like, they thrive (morning sun, afternoon shade).


 COMMENT 187090P agree helpful negative off topic

2011-06-26 10:07 AM

I'd add Plumbago and Melaleuca Nesophila (they're OK on the freeway but not in the garden) and second Azaleas - they're not "self cleaning" so you have to hand pick off all the dead blooms - what a pain!


 COMMENT 187110 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-06-26 10:45 AM

One can tell within a couple of years when a yard was landscaped by the choice of plants. Tam junipers are real 60s stuff. Flax is 50s and 90s revival. Our current fascination with kangaroo pods plants (if they survive) will be uglily evident in a decade or so. The only "timeless" stuff is what nature tolerates without our intervention. That doesn't mean just "natives" whatever they are.


 COMMENT 187136 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-06-26 11:56 AM

things I'm, very, very sorry I ever planted:

Geranium incanum
Matilija Poppy--a zombie on steriods
Carolina cherry
Golden honeylocust
Santa Barbara Daisy--it's zombie, jr.
catmint, though Kitty Cat is verrry glad

I now fully understand why seniors used to come in the nursery looking haggard and wan and ask for plants that needed "NO Maintenance!" I used to think they were being lazy--heck no, they were exhausted from the battle!


 COMMENT 187251 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-06-26 07:13 PM

Great post, Billy, and hilarious photos! I was happy to leave the ivy, Junipers, Azaleas and Camelias behind me when I moved from Long Island to Santa Barbara a few year ago. I LOVE the Cacti and succulents here. (But I'm starting to miss my Hydrangeas and may plant just one.)


 HAROLDM agree helpful negative off topic

2011-06-26 07:15 PM

I have a thriving hibiscus in my courtyard that draws lots of praise and was even immortalized by my sister on an aquarell postcard. Based on this Jan. 2010 edhat thread (http://www.edhat.com/site/tidbit.cfm?nid=26489) I got worm castings from IV Seed & Feed, mixed a few trowels of them into the top of the pot soil, and they took care of the white flies. Actually, after about a year I had to add another mix-in, but that is not heavy maintenance. But right on with your other comments, and I also love your crimes against horticulture.


 COMMENT 187265P agree helpful negative off topic

2011-06-26 08:19 PM

When we bought our 1st Santa Barbara house in Hidden Valley in 1969 ($30,000.!!!!!) we were surrounded by Algerian ivy 2' deep and Hibiscus 10' high. The roof rats played games in the Hibiscus and HUGE Norway rats as big as cats lived in the ivy. It took two years to get rid of the ivy but we were dazzled by the Hibiscus, having come from No. CA, so they stayed longer. This was pre-whitefly. Worm castings will solve whitefly problems now. A good reason to verimicompost - make your own.


 COMMENT 187272 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-06-26 08:35 PM

186880 again. I agree Billy on the azaleas and camellias. I'm over it. It was really me being nostalgic about the lovely ancient varieties we grew so easily in my youth in a different place. I now grow and love plants better suited to this climate. Sometimes you just have to let things go. Funny, I was never nostalgic about the junipers. Maybe because I always lost my ball in those.

Funny to see how one person's bane can be another's blessing. Matilija poppies and Santa Barbara daisy didn't behave particularly zombie-like in my yard and daisies actually solved a landscape problem we had (covering an ugly retaining wall) while looking pretty and only needed an annual whacking back to stay neat. They are a lot less trouble than the lovely but rat inducing and zombiesque Yankee Point ceanothus we have.


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