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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.

# # # #

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)

 COMMENT 51975 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-01-02 10:37 AM

Neat article, well written.


 SARAH agree helpful negative off topic

2010-01-02 04:15 PM

I love the photos of LaCumbre. I've been watching their dismal plantings for years.
You missed the giant circular "planting" of astro turf between Macys and the Pottery Barn. No one seems to know if they should walk on it or go around.


 COMMENT 52023 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-01-03 06:03 AM

Is there a difference in bare root fruit trees you buy at places like Home Depot vs. local nurseries.

In other words, are all bare root fruit trees created equal?

What are the dos and don'ts on selecting fruit trees?


 COMMENT 52034 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-01-03 10:08 AM

Billy here:
Sarah: If space allowed, I'd expend at least another 1000 words ripping La Cumbre a new one, including their artificial turf crop circle. So many other things wrong their, including the line-up of potted plants along the wall at Sears. So many horrors - so little time.
Puente: the biggest advantage of buying at Sumida is that rather than all the plants being packed in cardboard boxes preventing you from inspecting the roots, Sumida loosely packs them together in sawdust. You can hunt around until you find just the right one. 2) You also get individual attention from knowledgeable professionals - not the case at the national retailers, 3) they're more likely to have varieties that work best in our climate, rather than one-size-fits-all national buying strategies, 4) most important, locally owned businesses are quickly disappearing - gotta help the homies.


 COMMENT 52049 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-01-03 01:34 PM

Sumida? How about Terra Sol? We love that nursery. Locally owned too.


 KDEF agree helpful negative off topic

2010-01-03 03:14 PM

Billy, you should do a whole edhat piece on the landscaping or lack thereof at the La Cumbre Mall. Your reply to Puente fits right in to your criticism. It is out-of-town corporate mall owners and managers trying to impose their plant material and design to Santa Barbara. They should hire local landscapers such as yourself to suggest a pleasing and sustainable plant palate. It is the same reason why Puente needs to get her bare root fruit trees from a local nursery


 COMMENT 52094 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-01-03 09:41 PM

Happy, beautiful, healthy potted plants is an artform...that often takes trial and error to suceed, especially under terrible growing conditions. Citrus seems to be my biggest grievance. I have yet to see a good batch in town.


 COMMENT 52106 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-01-04 01:13 AM

A few observations, FWTW:

Odd that La Sumida heels their bareroot into sawdust. L.E. Cooke out of Visalia used to state clearly to retailers that their guarantee for trees would be void if trees were heeled into anything but soil, sand or DG, as soon as they were delivered. No covering with tarps, etc., for a day or two. In the 'ground' now! NO ground wood products. Roots need to be kept well hydrated and ground wood dries out too fast.

Also, I doubt seriously if any retailer would allow anyone to pull and inspect tree roots. "Choose your tree/shrub, we'll pull it (carefully!) and inspect the roots. Most are fine, as we inspected them as we heeled them in."

As far as mall & streeside plantings, I could tell some horor stories about durability and maintenance. I maintained the 30-odd large streetside pots in the village of Arroyo Grande for three years. It was a constant battle to keep plants alive between trash, discarded food, and other unmentionable human debris--yes, as bad as you can imagine. People can be pigs. Make that disgusting pigs. Seasonal availability made finding and combining interesting groupings tricky. Spring was a no-brainer, once I convinced the merchant in charge to allow plantings other than Yellow First Lady marigolds, red petunias and cobalt lobelia. But other seasons were hair-pullers. I actually built a few planters that I was proud of. But usually just as soon as some would start to thrive, someone would XXXXXX in them. Talk about thankless jobs. The public didn't respect the planters and the merchants wouldn't adequately fund their maintenance.

Some California shopping malls to rival the best public gardens: The Barnyard, Carmel; Del Monte Shopping Center, Monterey, Stanford Shopping Center, Palo Alto; and the heartbreakingly beautiful interior courtyards at Stanford Hospital cancer units between E= Gound and F-Ground. Just thinking about their beauty starts the tears flowing. Generously funded by an endowment by Peter and Helen Bing, groupings are replaced as soon as flowers fade. Delphiniums, foxglove, helebores, scented geranuims, antique rose varieties, giant blue salvia 'limelight', verbena, hosta, acers, flowering cherry, tulips, ranunculus, iris, narcissus, daphne, camellias, azaleas, all of which thrive in the best climate in California. A spot of sanity in a surreal habitat.


 SHOREBIRD agree helpful negative off topic

2010-01-04 07:08 AM

It's "dogma" to believe that cell phone towers have any physical effect on people in playgrounds and lawn bowling venues.


 COMMENT 52116 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-01-04 07:33 AM

It's stupidty to assume that there is no harmful effect in the absence of long-term studies proving otherwise.

Why take the chance with a generation of kids?

Why trust the communications industry which has a huge vested interest?


 COMMENT 52119 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-01-04 07:55 AM

Billy redesigned the Meadow?


 COMMENT 52141 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-01-04 09:42 AM

Well thanks for trashing all the hard work done by the landscapers of the malls. Have you ever lived anywhere else where malls are landscaped only with mailboxes, rows of newspaper boxes, and cigarette/trash bins--not a flower or tree in sight? Perhaps you are lobbying for a job at the News-Press where the mode of reporting is to find all that is wrong with something and hammer that point over and over as if trying to destroy its very essence. Because that's what you have done in your article (and don't get me started about your debasing others as a way of promoting yourself). There is beauty to be found in those mall pots of flowers and trees...life, color, renewal, care, nature, peace. It's a shame you can't see it and a shame you will be teaching others there is only one right way to do landscaping....yours.


 COMMENT 52242 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-01-05 11:37 AM

Let's turn this thread around.

Who has some GREAT looking public landscapes to reccommend?

Mine: The Barnyard, Carmel
Cal Poly Botanic Garden, SLO
Stanford Hospital Interior courtyards
Del Monte Shopping Ctr, Monterey
demonstration garden@ Sierra Azul Nsy, Watsonville


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