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Not Even With a Ten-Foot Pole
updated: Dec 05, 2008, 12:00 AM

Thoughts From the Garden of Ed

Not Even With a Ten-Foot Pole
Five Plants I Won't Use
by Billy Goodnick

"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." You see, my mom, Lovely Linda of Lemona, had the opinions you'd expect of a strong-willed former Brooklynite. It fell right in with the family philosophy of "You have your opinion; I'll have the right one."

The herring didn't all far from the tree. It just morphed from disgusting foods to tacky landscape plants. Ask my wife, Lin. A drive in the car with me is a running diatribe of scathing commentaries about the bone-headed landscape choices people make as we careen down quiet neighborhood streets. I have no idea how she tolerates my rants, but, as long as I keep my window up and my voice below a roar, she just smiles, nods and tries to shut me out.

My most incendiary invectives are usually directed at properties with groups of plants that have no business being together, let alone sharing the same ZIP code. They're usually grouped together in a manner that ensures most will die slow, miserable deaths for lack of understanding of their growing needs.

One of my favorites is seeing aggressive, spreading plants like Bougainvillea ‘Rosenka' (the light pink one everyone plants) crammed into little spaces with annual flowers like petunias and snapdragons. These Bougainvillea monsters, which easily reach ten feet across if left alone, create masses of thorny branches six feet high. What's that you say? You'll just prune them? Let's see if I have this straight. You bought them for their showy flowers, which sprout at the tips of the branches, but you'll be shearing the flowers off to keep the plant from devouring the other lovelies in the garden. Great planning, Einstein.

See what I mean? Pickled herring is a lot like Bougainvillea.. So with this in mind, I give you "Five Plants I Wouldn't Put in a Client's Garden Even if They Threatened to Do Something Terrible to a Cute Little Kitty Cat."

1. 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 up 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.

2. Impatiens (Impatiens balsamina): If you can buy it in front of a drug store or grocery, I don't want it in my garden. I can hear you: "But they're easy to grow and they provide a lot of color." They suck up way too much water for our climate.

3. Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis): I think it's the official flower of Santa Barbara. If that's the case, then the Giant Mexican White Fly should be our official bird because the two go hand in hand. The flowers are quite pretty and the color range allows lots of design opportunities, but the risk of whitefly infestations and the lack of effective non-toxic remedies means I just can't use them on my projects in good conscience.

4. Tam Juniper (Juniperus sabina ‘Tamariscifolia') is, once again, a relatively inoffensive plant so demonized by misuse that I couldn't imagine putting it in a garden. It's intended to be used as a ground cover, growing 18" tall. It also gets 15 feet across, but is usually planted three feet from its neighbor. The result, seen throughout older neighborhoods, is massive green-topped blocks with brown sticks displayed along the edges. Ersatz gardeners sometimes shave them into brown arms with green poofs at the ends, not unlike an illustration from a Dr. Seuss book. You might as well buy a block of green Styrofoam and place it along the curb and save some water.

5. Azaleas and Camellias (Azalea indica/Camellia japonica) - two plants, but to me they're inseparable. When I moved to Santa Barbara in 1976 and started working at the upper State Street location of La Sumida Nursery, these were the big sellers. They're beautiful in bloom, handsome in form and foliage, bring soft pastel colors in winter and early 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 massive amounts of organic matter. If a plant needs to be installed using heaping helpings of peat moss, requires special feedings with acidic fertilizers, and sucks up water like a fish, it's not going to make the cut.

Everyone should strive to create gardens that are beautiful, functional and sustainable. This philosophy has no room for plants that need continual pruning, feeding, watering and spraying with toxins. Besides, the more you have to cut and shape inappropriately selected plants, the uglier they are, and the more noise and air pollution you create with those obnoxious gas-powered trimmers.

I have a deep-seated belief that we should use plants that can thrive with little or no help from us - plants that don't need to be on life support to contribute to the beauty of our landscapes.

So that's it. Five plants you can scratch off your list. Now put down Miss Kitty and back away slowly.

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Billy Goodnick is a nice guy who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.


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