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Put the Camera Away and Enjoy the Garden
updated: Apr 10, 2009, 12:00 AM

Thoughts From the Garden of Ed

Put the Camera Away and Enjoy the Garden
by Billy Goodnick

Poppy Cluster
I lead a complex life. If I had a personal logo, it would be an X-shaped candle burning at all four ends. The rigors of pounding out a thousand words for this column are sometimes complicated by the desire to include photographs. I get by with my point and shoot, but there's a limit to what I can produce. "I need one of those hot-shot Brooks Institute students to be my intern," I thought to myself.

I found my assistant. Ellie Gabrielle Naftaly is her name. Brooks doesn't accept four year olds, but if they did, she'd rock the house. Don't let her age or size fool you. She's got an eye like Ansel Adams and a unique approach to nature photography. Walking the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden with her and Lin, my spousal support unit, this past Sunday was an eye-opening experience.

The Bot Garden is always a great visit, rain or shine. We've been members ever since my now nineteen-year-old son, Benjamin Cosmo, was an infant. Lin and I took Boy Wonder up there almost every weekend, first strapped to our backs, then nervously guiding him as he took small steps over bumpy paths, later, off on adventures building little dams from mud and cobbles in the creek.

Last Sunday was my third visit there in a week. The first time was a reconnaissance trip in preparation for the class I taught on Saturday. The curriculum was an all-day design blitz teaching students how to create any style of garden using California native and Mediterranean plants: Japanese, contemporary, classical, Zoroastrian hip-hop, you name it. Did you know you could do that? There's really no contradiction in employing low-water using plants to create the illusion of a temperate forest, an English cottage or an oasis of tropical looking jungle. It's a matter of reverse engineering the key visual features of those styles and finding SoCal-appropriate substitute plants that give the same effect without sucking up precious resources.

What we think of as an English cottage garden would never have evolved in these parts?that style is an outgrowth of the natural systems and culture of its origins. The aesthetic was transplanted out here over generations, as America's migratory patterns moved from Europe to the Atlantic seaboard, then inland and eventually, to the Wild West. Sociologists will tell you that we bring with us those things that are familiar and comforting, including gardens (and bagels).

That's how those damn lawns got here. I sometimes imagine that if our country had been settled by Juan de Anza and his Boyz coming up out of the Sonoran desert, eventually dispersing eastward, there'd be some poor souls at the Hyannis Port Ladies Garden Club trying to make saguaro cactus and century plants grow in their front yards. Instead, suburbia demanded that those of us who live in the semi-desert keep trying to emulate plantings that have no business in our eighteen-inches-of-rain-per-year climate.

I can't expect that people will abandon their vision of what constitutes a beautiful landscape?eyes of the beholder and all that sort of rot, eh? So instead I try to instruct them on how they can have their cake and grow it too. Anyway, the Botanic Garden class was a hit, judging from the response of the attendees?especially the part where the students went foraging in the Botanic Garden's extensive nursery and created their own planting combinations. [BTW: If you want a similar experience, my SBBC Continuing Ed class starts again this Monday, April 13. Enroll on-line, quick!]

So when Matt and Anya asked if we could take Ellie for a few hours, the SBBG was already on my mind. The memories of family visits were rekindled by the thought of giving Ellie the grand tour. We arrived mid-afternoon and started down the arroyo trail that runs along the main building. There's an extensive children's educational area and Ellie was all over it, pointing out plants she liked, leading the way. Since I don't go anywhere without my little point-and-shoot Nikon, I kept falling behind taking shots that I imagined I'd use for a future lecture or Edhat post.

My guilty conscience was split between capturing images and sharing the wonders of the garden with Ellie and Lin. Ellie read my mind: "Billy, put the camera away and come with us," she insisted. Away went the camera, and off we went into the cool shade of the canyon. Up the rocks Ellie went, down Slide Rock, getting her jeans more than a little filthy (sorry, Anya).
Lin, a former schoolteacher, was in her element explaining how certain grasses and sedges could be made into baskets and how the dam and aqueduct supplied early Santa Barbara's water.

I'd been sneaking a photo or two along the way, but when we emerged at the top of the meadow, Ellie took a strong interest in the camera. Together we framed the shots and Ellie gently squeezed the shutter. The instant gratification on the digital screen became a minor obsession. "We just HAVE to take a picture of that!" she persuaded, as we came upon a brilliant bed of bright California poppies surrounded by hummingbird sage. Trees, darting lizards, eye-popping golden flannel bush flowers, even a vicious, spiny agave or two, were the objects of her attention.

So, here's a sampling of images. The rest are at my Flickr.com site. Big thanks to Ellie Gabrielle Naftaly. She's not only got a great eye, but can hold gigantic boulders over her head. That's what I call multi-talented.


The north end of the meadow has a great collection of succulent agaves and dudleyas. This off-putting character has sexy curves and cool colors.


The late afternoon sun came through the redwood section in warm waves of gold.


This gem is canyon sunflower (Venegasia carpesiodes), growing in the dappled shade below the oaks.


Ellie thought the combination of hummingbird sage, pink yarrow and poppies was too beautiful to miss. (Salvia spathacea, Achillea millefolium and Eschscholzia californica)


I'm perturbed by the expansion of lawn within the meadow. Yes, it's all native and low water using. It just feels to man-made for the setting.


There's nothing I've seen that rivals the floral display of this tough-as-nails flannel bush (Fremontedendron species). Just keep the irrigation away from it.


For more photos from the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, click over to Flickr.

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


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

 COMMENT 24632 agree helpful negative off topic

2009-04-10 07:23 AM

wow--pure admiration for Miss Ellie's camera eye. Stunning shots. Thank you Billy, for facilitating that! (but did you mean to give us a shot of succulents?)


 COMMENT 24639 agree helpful negative off topic

2009-04-10 07:56 AM

There's a simpler explanation for lawns. Lawns have a lot of utility for families with children. And most people without children are not offended by lawns, but like them too, having grown up with them. Thus, developers put lawns in when they build houses. And even those homeowners without children are likely to maintain lawns to make their house attractive to the most people when it comes time to sell the house.

Can you come up with a good compromise for people who want lawns? Maybe something more natural for the area, or at least something that uses less water, while still providing a similar utility?


 COMMENT 24649 agree helpful negative off topic

2009-04-10 09:03 AM

Lawns - it's a tough cycle; we like them because they're familiar. Most people don't open garden magazines because there's a monotonous carpet of green. It's just a visual element we've accepted.

I totally agree that it's the only choice for CERTAIN recreational/family activities. If that's you're solution, then there's the obligation to create and maintain your lawn with respect for all best environmental practices.

There are great alternatives: stop by the new expansion of Bohnett Park at San Andres & W. Victoria - new meadow coming in with native grasses, blue-eye grass, daisies, yarrow, sedge. Much more interesting to look at, lower water use and still provides a flat plane to set off the rest of the plantings.

Gotta run. Thanks for the opp. to expound.


 COMMENT 24809 agree helpful negative off topic

2009-04-12 10:07 PM

There shouldn't be a lawn in the SB Botanic Garden, a botanic garden for for Santa Barbara area native plants.

That's an example of the new management at the SB Botanic Garden and why I gave up my long time membership there in protest.


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