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updated: Jan 02, 2009, 12:00 AM

Thoughts From the Garden of Ed

by Billy Goodnick

As I start this installment of Thoughts from the Garden Of Ed(en) I'm sitting up in bed in a non-descript motel in the Marina District of San Francisco. Lin (my spousal support unit) and I are wrapping up our first ‘alone' vacation since our son Ben was born eighteen years ago and there's no better spot for an adventure than our old stomping grounds. We drove up last Friday and have had three full days on the ground before heading home on Tuesday. No real itinerary—just a "now what do you want to do?" attitude that's allowed us to catch a couple of memorable museum visits, some movies, a nostalgic tour around our old neighborhood, great meals and ample servings of Peet's coffee. Lots of stuff has changed since we left but it's still a kick to get reacquainted with our favorite city.

We moved to San Francisco in '85 after I finished my landscape architectural studies at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and stayed a little over two years before returning to Santa Barbara, where we met. San Fran was the logical choice once school was out—big cosmopolitan city with lots of booming landscape architectural offices. I was a gung-ho, dreamy-eyed grad ready to change the world. We found a decent apartment in the Inner Sunset neighborhood, about three inches from the clatter of the N-Judah streetcar line, but thankfully, just a short walk from Golden Gate Park's Ninth Street entrance. Lin still had a year of school to finish her teaching credential and had a lot on her plate, but I don't think we ever missed a weekend without visiting the Strybing Arboretum.

Unlike a lot of professions, every time someone in the horticultural field relocates, their most fundamental material changes. Think about it—if you're a dentist and you move from San Diego to Anchorage, there's not a lot to relearn, other than how to run a snow blower so you can drive to work. But for us in the chlorophyll trade, it can be a whole new ball game.

At least my migratory pattern has stayed within the more or less coastal areas of California, starting in L.A., with its hot summers and drier winters, then to Santa Barbara, SLO and eventually San Francisco. Each time I moved, some plants would have to be dropped from my repertoire while new possibilities emerged. Setting up shop in the cooler Bay Area allowed me to use varieties of flowering cherry that would languish in Santa Barbara. And thanks to wetter northern winters and the ubiquitous fog, coast redwoods were no longer off limits.

But there are many plants that adapt to a wide range of conditions and have remained in my arsenal as I crawled my way up the coast. Our visit to the Strybing reminded me of a few plants that will likely reappear in my designs and a few that are still out of reach. The need for good drainage will be the main culprit that might keep some of these out of reach for Santa Barbara landscapes. Whoever decided to place our little slice of paradise right atop that crappy clay soil had a sick and twisted sense of humor. Here are the lucky seven I want to share with you.

Chinese Holly and Musk Rose (Mahonia lomarifolia and Rosa species): Before we even made it through the gate, we were treated to a lovely dose of bright yellow. The flowers in the background stand atop the spiny foliage of the Chinese Holly, a plant in no way related to its namesake (isn't botany fun?). The strongly vertical stems are sparsely adorned with spiny horizontal leaves and the clusters of golden-yellow flowers top off the display. The foreground plant is a musk rose (flowers long since faded) but the fall color makes a great compliment to the background flowers. A good lesson for your garden is to pair plants with strong fall color with flowering plants that set them off at this time of year.

Fuchsia Flowering Gooseberry (Ribes speciosum): The name alone calls for everyone to try this bit of eye candy. The plant grows about four feet high, is mostly evergreen and has an open, wiry character. In winter and spring, the delicate reddish-pink flowers are a welcome treat and attract hummingbirds. It tolerates some shade and doesn't require much water, making it ideal for gardeners looking for a showy, water-conserving plant. It tolerates clay soil, but prefers decent drainage. One caveat—the branches and fruit are covered with spines, so leave your cashmere sweater in the house when pruning time comes.

Protea ‘Pink Ice' (no common name): The Cape Province section of the Strybing features plants from South Africa, a cornucopia of great specimens that work well in San Francisco's and Santa Barbara's Mediterranean climate. The luscious pink flowers of this five-foot high shrub were a big draw for like-minded plant paparazzi. No wonder. The fine silver hairs on the petals reflect light, hence the suggestion of ice in the common name. If you can find a sunny spot that has good drainage and lots of sun, this hard-working plant will bring an exotic treat to your garden. I like pairing it with a few silver-leafed plants to accentuate the flowers.

Leucadendron ‘Red Gem' (no common name): In addition to its cousin, above, South Africa and Australia host a wide array of plants in the Proteacea family, including lots of Leucadendrons. This feller gets about 2-3 feet high and 4-5 feet wide. Growing conditions are about the same as the protea. The flower is a little less spectacular but as you can see from this image, the shear number of soft yellow blooms makes this drought tolerant sparkler a real showoff for a winter garden.

Leucadendron ‘Safari Sunset' and Loropetalum species (Cone Flower and Chinese Fringe Flower): Okay, I like Leucadendron. The taller plant in the background receives a frequent place in my designs for it's brilliantly red-tipped foliage. It combines well with plants with ruddy bark, like Arbutus ‘Marina' or manzanita. I'll also throw it in with some of the red-leaf New Zealand flax that grow well in S.B. In this shot, it's paired in a killer combo with a purple-leaf variety of Chinese fringe flower. The burgundy leaves pick up the rich tones of the Leucadendron and the contrasting forms of the plants—strong vertical against lacy—add a subtle dimension of contrast.

Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Marjorie Channon' and Loropetalum (Variegated Kahuhu and our old pal from the last photo): The same purple foliage provides a completely different impact when paired with the delicate light foliage of the Kahuhu (gesundheit!) I've been planting "Marjorie" in more and more projects lately because it grows just about anywhere and provides such a great foil for other colors. Though the third member of this grouping is the trunk of a flowering cherry tree that would be marginal at best in our climate, you can create a similar effect with the dark bark of the strawberry tree (Arbutus). As I try to drill into my design students, anytime you create contrast and impact without relying on flowers, you've got a year round winner.

Himalayacalamus hookerianus (Blue Bamboo): I saved my fave for last. I recently discovered this plant at San Marcos Growers, a local wholesale-only nursery (you can order through your local retailer). The dusty blue coating on the stems appears on the new growth and then fades as each culm matures. It prefers morning sun or partial shade and sucks up a bit more water than some of these other plants, but it's well worth a few extra gallons once in a while. It's a clumping type (not a runner) so don't worry about it popping up in the middle of your bedroom closet. Keep it out from under the eaves as it grows to fifteen feet tall and looks best if you don't top it.

So those are the botanical highlights of our San Francisco trip. There'll be more images parked at my flickr.com collection. As I finish this article on New Year's Day I wish you all a garden filled with happy plants and people in 2009.

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


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