A Tale of Two Landscapes: The Adult Version*
by Billy Goodnick
[Author's note: I was going to start with a clever parody of "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." but it seemed forced, so I let it slide.]
This week brought yet another lock-my-brakes-up, Scooby-Doo moment as I drove into town from the far reaches of Goleta. (Santa Barbara is "town"; Goleta is, well, Goleta).
Where the 4100-block of outer State Street mysteriously morphs into Hollister Avenue exists an architectural no-man's land. It was here that a misbegotten shrub bed pegged my finely tuned crap detector into the red.
Hair-trigger reflexes overtook my nerve center as I jerked my trusty silver Camry hard to starboard, bouncing off the curb, wheel-alignment be damned! Like a Lohan-stalking paparazzo jacked up on one too many 16-oz. Monster Energy Assault beverages, I fumbled for my camera and sprang from the car.
I say finely tuned detector, because from a distance, 99.76% of folks driving by wouldn't bat an eye. At a glance, they might even find the landscaping interesting.
There is a gentle, dare I say naturalistic, flow to the topography of the planting. Voluptuous mounds of foliage appear to undulate.
Shades of green intermix in subtle contrast-fine-textured, forest-green leaves are flecked with sky-blue flowers; burgeoning leaves of copper, red and yellow emerge from last year's canopy.
But it just didn't work for me. Here was another case study of the wrong plants in the wrong place-a titanic clash between each plant's genetic destiny and the casehardened, laser-straight steel of shrieking power tools.
Now, before someone picks another fight, admonishing me about how the downtrodden gardeners "are trying their best, and they work really, really hard for very little pay", let me say, I get it. I was one of those guys a few decades ago-we called ourselves "dirt bag gardeners" and also worked really hard for our menial wages. But unlike much of what passes for commercial landscape maintenance, we also knew one plant from another.
Besides, I'm gearing up to say something very complimentary about their next-door neighbor.
So, really quickly, cuz you already know the drill:
1) Lots of potentially big plants (bougainvillea, rosemary and India hawthorn) in too small a space.
2) Disregard for-or ignorance of-the natural forms of each plant: "They're crossing the demilitarized zone; they must be stopped!"
3) The crew most likely has only 30 minutes at this stop, because that's as much as the owner cares about the landscaping. Ergo, the relentlessly efficient gas-powered hedge trimmer emerges from the truck bed-a weapon about as subtle as a Molotov cocktail.
Solution: Pony up for a one-time napalm drop to clear the plate and replace the sorry sight with plants that fit the space and need no pruning.
The bizarre mystery is why one India hawthorn in the midst of this maelstrom was singled out and rendered cylindrical. Perhaps the gardener has the Random Geometric Form Generator app on his iPhone.
Sometimes I stop and ask myself why I get so livid about something as seemingly inconsequential as plant trimming. For me, it's more than the f'ugliness we're all exposed to. It's also the aching futility and environmental impacts of adversarial gardening, as well as the noise, the fossil fuels and the fetid fumes. Adding insult to injury, someone gets paid for this stuff.
And, yes, it's the f'ugly, too.
With my adrenalin levels returning to normal, I finished shooting my pics and was packing up my camera when I glanced over my shoulder. Across the driveway I beheld a Lilliputian bamboo fence, softly nodding Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata aztecorum) and viagrically vertical columns of horsetail reed (Equisetum hyemale). This restful sight was enhanced by the musical sound of water washing over polished pebbles.
The garden sits in front of the Riviera Adult Superstore-the Blockbuster for lonely guys; the Toys R' Us for consenting adults. I stood paralyzed in the driveway that separates two botanical worlds: Looking east, a garden worthy of Hannibal Lecter, and to the west, Lao Tsu.
"Who," I wondered, "has botanically enhanced this otherwise nondescript retail outpost while exhibiting such obvious good taste?"
The Back Story
Well, a few years ago, when Caltrans constructed road improvements along this strip and the plan included some obligatory landscaping between the road and the businesses. The Lecter folks settled for what Caltrans offered.
However, Scott Baty, owner of the Riviera Adult Superstore (4135 State St.), had a grander vision. He worked out a deal to use the money Caltrans was going to spend in front of his shop, then, with Caltrans' permission, designed and installed his own landscaping. He even chipped in a good amount of his own money to make up the difference.
"I needed screening from the constant traffic and needed to keep maintenance to a minimum," he told me in a phone interview. "Businesses like mine aren't always welcome. I didn't want to be a blight on the neighborhood."
Garden design seems to come naturally to Baty: "You either ‘get' gardens or you don't," he said. "And I chose slow growing palms so I wouldn't have to continually trim them." (Those are Jelly palms-Butia capitata.) "Horsetail reeds block the low view, but I made sure they couldn't escape-they're like the bad type of bamboo."
Baty's attention to detail shows in his placement of a sleek, chocolate-colored recirculating fountain he got at Home Improvement Center. The water feature is tastefully set in a small patch of unmown creeping red fescue (Festuca rubra), a graceful grass that thrives in partial shade.
If there's a lesson in this little tale, perhaps it's that Scott Baty put on his thinking cap, thought creatively by responding to the opportunities and constraints, considered the inherent traits of each plant, and factored in long-term maintenance.
The result is a beautiful, functional, sustainable landscape I'd be proud to call my own.
I don't believe I'll be adding either of these examples as stops on my landscape design class tours. Some students might feel uncomfortable around video titles like Betty and Her Bantam Buddies. (I made that up-really.) Yes, it's an adult education class, but there's adult, and then there's adult.
* I really wanted to call this story "A Tale of Two Titties" but other than being clever in a fourth-grade sort of way, it just made no sense, so I left it out.
bonus link: Riviera Adult Superstore
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Billy Goodnick is a nice guy who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.
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