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Lessons From The Mall
updated: Jan 04, 2010, 12:00 AM

Thoughts From the Garden of Ed

I'm Like, Lessons From The Mall
by Billy Goodnick

A few days ago I started roughing out ideas for this week's Edhat column. Not one to miss a self-promotion opportunity, I thought I'd plug "Through the Green Gate", my paradigm-shifting, life-changing adult ed landscape design class, that starts on Wednesday, January 20th (6 pm, rm 26) at the Wake Center.

But being the subtle guy that I am, there's no way I'd just come out and drop such a blatant load of pimpage in the first paragraph. I figured I'd wrap the message at the end of an article about a variety of local educational garden-related offerings.

"Goodnick, didn't you already write that?" an inner voice asked.

"Crap!" I succinctly replied. "September 2008. Same ploy." Now I'll have to find another way to let readers know about my upcoming landscape design class on January 20th at the Wake Center. And I'll have to be verrrrry clever about it.

Instead, I've harkened back to yesterweek and my last minute shopping sojourns to a few local malls. As much as I tried to stay focused on Santa's ticking clock, I was often distracted by the plantings around the shopping center. There were only a few instances of inspiration, but mostly it was pretty damn blah. Perhaps you can glean a few ideas from my observations.

La Cumbre Plaza

Pajamas! I'll get Lin some soft, fluffy PJs! I drove uptown, grabbed a bracing cuppa Major Dickason's at Peet's and bombed over to Santa Barbara's first modern retail mall. Entering from the west parking lot near Macy's, I was encouraged by the formal allee of queen palms that greeted me. "Nice sense of entry!" I thought.

With camera always at the ready, I snapped this close-up of a queen palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana) and yew pine (Podocarpus gracilior). This pairing captures perfectly the design principles of harmony and contrast: The yellow-green coloration of the foliage is a perfect marriage while the emphatically different forms provide distinctly different visual textures.

No e-Harmony going on here. Just two radically different forms (blade meets broadleaf), polar opposite leaf colors (strong variegation against ruby-tinged green) and visual textures (airy vs. dense). Light colored foliage was exploited to take the place of bright flowers, giving year round interest.

And that's about the last nice thing I could come up with for La Cumbre Plaza's train wreck of a landscape. If I were an actual journalist, I'd make phone calls, figure out who the landscape designers were, interview the person in charge of maintenance and gain an understanding of the constraints they have to deal with. After all, every design problem is a series of compromises that hopefully lead to the best possible solution, diluted as it may be. No one expects Alice Keck (or the Spanish Inquisition!).

But gimme a frickin break, will ya? It looks like someone devised a rubber stamp that brainlessly repeated the same boring handful of plants everywhere, most of which have no coherent theme or connection. It's part "cottagey" with pink roses and variegated English ivy, incongruously slammed together in Mediterranean-style rolled rim pots.

And everywhere, and I mean in every square millimeter of bare soil, pink, white and lavender impatiens. These hackneyed plants are to gardens what Campbell's cream of mushroom soup is to haute cuisine.

The sad part of this "landscape" is all the lost opportunities. Where engaging, attractive compositions could have enlivened the space, instead, we get imagination-free groupings of stultifyingly static containers. The result is what I call "visual noise." Here's one example.

Let's move on, shall we?

Loreto Plaza

Granted, Loreto Plaza - the recipient of a brand spanking new makeover - is less a "people mall" than a parking lot surrounded by shops, sidewalks and little planters. But given the limited opportunities, they've done a nice job and even stretched the plant palette beyond the usual suspects.

Unlike La Cumbre, the plants and architectural style are harmoniously Santa Barbara Mediterranean. In one of the more roomy planters at Your Travel Center, bronze-leafed grass palm (probably Cordyline australis 'Red Star'), is backed by what will soon be a tropical looking, lusciously fragrant giant Burmese honeysuckle (Lonicera hildebrandiana). The planting and wall colors work well together.

One new plant I'll be keeping on my radar is white-striped Tasman flax lily (Dianella tasmanica 'Variegata'), an Australian perennial that not only sports lively leaves but also sprays of dark blue flowers followed by cobalt blue berries. I haven't seen it used in a commercial landscape and will be interested in how it fairs in captivity.

One potential design problem caught my eye: A few overly large New Zealand flax (Phormium) that might compromise clear visibility and safety.

Paseo Nuevo

Like it or not, Paseo Nuevo is where the action is downtown, as proven by the dense throngs of shoppers many of you passionately avoid. I didn't do any shopping here - Chaucer's at Loreto got most of my business; books are good - but felt compelled to include it in this story. I've always been impressed with the variety and boldness of their plantings - someone with a playful design eye is in charge. Paseo Nuevo has a fun, lively architectural flavor and the accompanying landscaping and exuberant pots contribute to the look.

I admire the strength of the State Street paseo entrance just north of Macy's - a soaring arbor of wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) overhead and clusters of king palms (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana) densely packed together. Very Santa Barbara and a good way to create appropriate scale in a constrained space.

I also appreciate the use of Jacaranda trees (Jacaranda acutifolia) at the De la Guerra paseo, and the delicate pink flowering orchid trees (Bauhinia variegata) at the central fountain. There's nothing like a few canopy trees to provide a sense of enclosure and offer cooling shade for shoppers.

About my previous statement regarding variety and boldness? um, not so much around the holidays. Stripped of all imagination, I beheld clots of red and white cyclamen and the obligatory potted poinsettia. Oh well.

I had hoped that Paseo Nuevo would offer the good example to counter the missed opportunities at La Cumbre. Then I beheld what might be the ugliest container arrangement I've seen in ages.

This otherwise clever gold and white, Moorish-influenced vessel was loaded with an oddly mismatched jumble of plants. I think they should have wrapped the pot in holiday gift paper or aluminum foil for a few weeks. And just my luck - Mel's had run out of Pepto-Bismol eggnog shooters.

So What Did We Learn?

I was hoping to leave you with a lot of inspirational and usable design ideas for your own garden. But instead, you'll at least have a good idea what to do and what not to do if you develop your own shopping mall - ya never know.

Hey, here's my opportunity to redeem myself! Did you know that I'll be teaching an adult ed class at the Wake Center? No? Well listen up! It starts January 20th at the Wake Center. You'll need to register online.

I KNEW I'd find a way to sneak that in.

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


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