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I'll Give Myself a C+
updated: Jul 09, 2011, 10:00 AM

By Billy Goodnick

Did you ever find something in a long-forgotten box that zaps you back in time? My trigger was an old landscape plan I ran across last week, from my early school days. Like the goat herder at the Qumran Caves, I knew I held a piece of history in my hands. Gingerly, and with reverence, I liberated the scroll from a crusty, desiccated rubber band, carefully unfurling it.

The title block said 1975, so imagine my relief as I scanned this barely familiar drawing and did not wince.

In the early 70s, I wasn't sure what I would do with an ornamental horticulture education, but the music industry's flake factor had claimed another victim, and I realized I'd better find something new to do. I thought about my hobbies and passions.

Bonsai master and my former employer, George Yamaguchi, posing with "Thundercloud"

I had become enchanted by the exquisite art of bonsai (gateway drug to Japanese gardens and culture), fascinated by the way nature's forces and raw beauty could be captured and stylized at a human scale. My crush on chlorophyll didn't stop there. Like a Days of Our Lives junkie, I found myself deeply and emotionally invested in the turbulent lives of my 50 houseplants.

Off to school I skipped, and after two years of study, earned my associate's degree from Pierce College in LA, memorizing hundreds of multisyllabic botanical names and deciphering the mysterious sand-silt-clay triangle. I learned how to flocculate, which has nothing to do with bodily functions or puberty.

Flash to present: Here in my hand, like one of Dr. Leakey's Rift Valley bone chips, I held an early ancestor of the highly evolved, upright-walking, opposably-thumbed gardens I design today.

It's now 36 years since rendering this fictitious landscape plan (the title block imaginatively informs us that this is the Proposed Plan for Mr. + Ms. J. Smith; 123 Main Street). I am a landscape architect and, coincidentally, an instructor of residential landscape design at Santa Barbara City College.

After the giddy thrill of seeing my earliest known design washed over me, I thought, What if one of my SBCC students turned in this plan as their class project? How would it match up with my B.U.S. design philosophy - that every garden needs to be Beautiful, Useful, and Sustainable?

So let me fish out my red teacher pen and pass judgment upon the very distinguished-sounding Wm. Goodnick. And I bet you'll pick up a few design tips for your own garden.

Landscape Design Critique

Student: Goodnick, Wm.


• Your drafting is acceptable, displaying neatness, consistent line weights, and crisp corners. Your lettering is legible, but I was wondering how you came up with your plant symbols. This is the first time I've seen someone throw a handful of chicken livers on the paper and trace around them.

• The overall design is well scaled for the site. The right-angled theme of the front walkways provides a clear and welcoming hello, and reinforces the lines of the house. The herringbone brick pattern adds a formal texture, and the crescent mound in the lawn breaks up the box.

• The back yard geometry is adventurous. I like the skewed 25-degree angle; it adds excitement. Let's rethink the back lawn border, though: An aerial view of a train derailment doesn't work for me.

• The planting design strikes a balance between having a varied selection of trees, and using simple, broad masses of shrubs. Continue to show restraint: Once you have your plant palette figured out, be ruthless and cut it down by another 20 percent.


• I like that you made the path to the driveway wide and uncomplicated - best to keep this area safe and convenient for carrying groceries, loading up the kids, etc.

• Good idea having the play area for the kids close to the house, but the five-foot wood fence raises a safety concern. It prevents mom and dad from seeing that the sadistic, sinister older brother, David, is burying his darling little brother Billy up to his eyebrows in a sand pit filled with flesh-eating ants. (That's not really my brother David's name, and he only threatened to do that to me.)


• I know it's only 1975 and nobody has started warning us about droughts or global climate change or the environmental impacts from fossil-fueled power tools or the fish-killing effects of fertilizer run-off into creeks and beaches yet. And kids actually do play football in their front yards. But what about sparking a suburban farming revolution and trading Mr. + Ms. Smith's lawn for a row of zucchini plants and pasture for grazing free-range, organic Skippy and jelly sandwiches? Just a thought.

• Trees don't like lawns and lawns don't like trees. These two very different plant types want totally different watering regimens (deep and infrequent for trees; shallow and frequent for lawns). Instead, expand the beds to surround the trees - it makes mowing easier, too.

• Did your dog eat your plant list? I can't tell if you've observed the cardinal rule of sustainable landscaping - Right Plant / Right Place. That means selecting plants that don't exceed the size of the space you put them in. Your beds are narrow, - some only two-feet wide - constraining plants from reaching their mature size without a lifetime of pruning. It would be a horticultural crime to force someone to hack the plants into boxes and discs and meatballs.

Mr. Goodnick: I think you're on the right track and might someday rise to a career in design. But before you unleash your fledgling talents on unsuspecting homeowners, spend a few years working around plants, digging holes, getting dirty, and thinking about how your designs affect the bigger picture. And perhaps someday a guy named Al Gore will connect some tubes and wires and invent the Internets, so you can teach others what you've learned.


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