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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.

# # # #

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


# # # #

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

 SARAH agree helpful negative off topic

2008-12-05 07:39 AM

You are so right Billy. It took me 10 years of doing daily battle with strangling ivy and hibiscus white flies and of constantly watering those stupid impatiens to realize these plants can never be successful here. Luckily the giant carved juniper phenomenom is so ridiculous that even I, new to gardening at the time, immediately realized this and ripped it all out when I bought my house. I was recently considering planting camellias..... Guess I won't.


 COMMENT 17668 agree helpful negative off topic

2008-12-05 07:54 AM

Great advise and very, VERY funny! Thanks


 POOH agree helpful negative off topic

2008-12-05 08:05 AM

Geat article. How about five plants you WOULD plant in a garden here? (And it freezes in my yard so they have to be able to take some frost!)


 COMMENT 17671 agree helpful negative off topic

2008-12-05 08:10 AM

Pooh: The tough part of your request is limiting myself five good plants. The first 500 would be easy--then I'd have to put my thinking cap on.

Kate: That was meant to be very, very serious. Guess I need to read more Carl Sagan before I put pen to paper.

Sarah: You're on the right track. The best strategy is to just jettison the unsustainable junk and start fresh.

Later, skaters


 COMMENT 17672 agree helpful negative off topic

2008-12-05 08:21 AM

I look forward to the plants that you DO recommend! Thanks for the funny article


 COMMENT 17678 agree helpful negative off topic

2008-12-05 09:27 AM

Good stuff Billy. I would like a list of plants you do recommend too. I know it's hard, but just a pick a few that are your most commonly installed.


 COMMENT 17680 agree helpful negative off topic

2008-12-05 09:48 AM

Do we have an Edhat gallery with pics of readers' favorite plants in their gardens? I'm quite pleased with the performance of some of mine and would love to see others "in action" before putting them into the garden. Right now I'm into adding more salvia (no, not the kind you smoke), rosemary and lavender, but I'm always interested in a nice rose.


 COMMENT 17681 agree helpful negative off topic

2008-12-05 09:51 AM

Amen! I will print this out and put it on the doorstep of all my neighbors who have that awful Algerian ivy that is taking over OUR yard!


 COMMENT 17683 agree helpful negative off topic

2008-12-05 10:25 AM

Loved the article - I thought I was the only person with a strong hatred for ivy and junipers. I know most will disagree but I also would add palm trees to the list - they are way overplanted in SB and not native.


 COMMENT 17684 agree helpful negative off topic

2008-12-05 10:45 AM

I'll put down Miss Kitty when you put down my flat of impatiens! Long live the annuals!


 COMMENT 17693 agree helpful negative off topic

2008-12-05 02:37 PM

Our Camelia was planted when our house was built in the '60s. Besides the reshaping/restructuring we did when we moved in 9 years ago (freakin' gardeners for hire that trim everything into globe shapes!) and one big cut-back for house painting, all that's required for maintenance is raking up the flowers that fall off. If it's been especially dry we water it with the hose. Otherwise we put something on it once (chelated lime or something - hubby is the gardener) for food. We hosed it off very well whenever we had ash fallouts. We think it's beautiful, and we actually plan on planting 3 more on the side of our house that gets the same shade/cover as this one does.


 COMMENT 17722 agree helpful negative off topic

2008-12-06 01:38 PM

The neighbor's Algerian Ivy has just started a new shoot on my fence that is covered with Honeysuckle. Will the Ivy take over the Honeysuckle if I don't get it out? The Honeysuckle has taken over everything else!


 COMMENT 17723 agree helpful negative off topic

2008-12-06 02:54 PM

Come on, camellias do really well in SB if you get them through the first year or two, then they are true survivors of neglect- just keep the so called gardeners away from them with their lolly pop shearing...


 COMMENT 17724 agree helpful negative off topic

2008-12-06 05:17 PM

Billy Goodnick here...

Tink: Your honeysuckle will definitely succumb to the evil forces of doom summoned by the Algerian Ivy. Short of using napalm, it's just you and your clippers.

Micael: You're correct about camellia being a survivor under some SB conditions. I'm just sick of them and needed a few sacred cows to gore. If yours is doing well, enjoy.


 COMMENT 25619 agree helpful negative off topic

2009-04-22 07:10 AM

Just read your article.

Hah! We have a Dr Suess pruner moving into our neighborhood--everyone's shrubs are turning into "whimsical" shapes. Raph's, Lepto's, junipers, Leyland Cypress...it makes me shudder. And hubby wants to know why, since my arthritis has limited my ablility to 'do' for myself in the garden, I don't "just hire a gardener!!" I should make him read this column.


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