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Stay Classy Santa Barbara
updated: Sep 17, 2011, 10:15 AM
By Billy Goodnick
I'm posting this upbeat, gushing article about the beauty of Santa Barbara as
an advanced karmic vaccination for the likely effect of my next post, two weeks
hence. That will be my annual Santa Barbara Not So Beautiful Awards, where I
shine a snarky, searing light on the boneheaded things people do in the name of
I always catch some heat from the "look for the good and praise it" crowd. Yes,
I've heard the old adage, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything
at all," but I don't live in Smurfville, and I DO get a lot of entertainment and
educational mileage out of looking for bad examples and poking at them.
In the meantime, I'm posting this gallery of enchanting imagery to prove that I
don't just walk around looking for warts and blemishes, when it's obvious that
we're blessed with a bounty of beauty that is Santa Barbara. Perhaps by shining
a golden light on the vignettes that thrill me, you'll see that I'm not just a one-
dimensional curmudgeon flailing his shillaly in the darkness.
There's a daily reminder of Santa Barbara's architectural finesse occupying a
sweet spot a block from my pad. The corner of State and Islay streets is adorned
with one of the most perfectly proportioned buildings I've encountered. There's
something about the compactness of the form, the perfect symmetry of the
central massing, the tiled façade fountain (unfortunately, allowed to fall into
disrepair), and the intentional imbalance created by the Moorish tower, that I find
most satisfying. The thickly tiled roof is supported by a dense series of dark wood
beams, giving it the presence of a heavily iced cupcake.
Let's stay with the architectural theme and bounce up to the Mesa where
architect David Van Hoy redesigned his own home a few years ago. He collaborated with
landscape architect Jack Kiesel to banish the lawn, kick the door open, and make
a big statement.
Jack used a combination of tough, low-water-using grasses (blue oat grass, moor
grass, and blue fescue) mixed with succulent Agaves, Aeoniums, and Echeverias
to create a flowing, cool-colored canvas dotted with bursts of rich purple foliage.
It took a year of vigilant weeding to tame the initial planting, but now that the
plants have grown together, this adventurous front yard is the poster child for
My upper Eastside pooch walks take me past a marvelously mystical planting
on the 1900 block of Garden Street. The contemporary style architecture is
imaginatively supported by an equally unconventional landscape. The dominant
feature is a scattering of silver dollar eucalyptus trees, trimmed to keep them only
a few feet high. This close-up shows what's going on underneath: rolling "hills"
of Korean grass (Zoysia tenuifolia) creating a dreamlike miniature landscape.
Poking into view on the right is the fine textured needlelike foliage and lipstick red
flowers of coral fountain (Russelia equisetiformis), a rugged native of Mexico that
grows about four feet high and wide, and tolerates sun or partial shade.
I snapped this eerie reflection in the window of the Santa Barbara Yacht Club late
one afternoon as my band, King Bee, was arriving
for a gig. What better summary of the joys of living at the beach than the late
afternoon sun, palm trees, Leadbetter Point, and breakers arriving from across
From the grand magnificence of the sea we move to the fine-scaled geometry
that nature creates. These opuntia cactus leaves remind me that there is beauty
and order everywhere when we take the time to look.
Right across the street from San Roque Park (Canon Drive at Chuparosa) is
my new favorite front yard. I'm hard pressed to remember what the landscaping
used to look like, but I'm impressed by the bold use of ornamental grasses that
have taken up residence here. A pair of native California sycamores provides
the appropriate scale for this large home, while underneath, masses of grasses
ebb and flow down the slope. The chocolate-colored New Zealand flax are a bold
contrast to the variations of green and do double duty screening the view of the
street. My quibble would be with their blocky, linear arrangement that detracts
from the otherwise natural drifts of the other plants.
My ongoing rant about crimes against horticulture began with my infuriation at
the butchery of junipers: There seems to be no end to the way people insult and
mutilate this genus. So I feel compelled to point out that just as some people
claim that "guns don't kill people…" (if that were true, there'd be no prime time
TV), junipers DO NOT cause f'ugliness - talentless plant janitors do.
So here's what junipers can look like if only the numbskulls with the power
tools would leave their weapons of destruction on the truck and, instead, reach
for their manual clippers. This sensitively pruned planter on the 1500 block of
Anacapa Street deserves a huge huzzah. So let me give them a huge huzzah.
I love my breakfasts at Renaud's Patisserie and
was especially thrilled when they opened their second store across the street
from the Arlington Theater, close to my house. And what fun that the Arlington
Court management thought to decorate the ubiquitous jacaranda trees with
oversized Christmas tree baubles.
A few blocks away at Alameda Park are cousins of the massive Moreton Bay
fig tree at the Amtrak station. Most members of the ficus family are known, and
sometimes despised, for their sinuous, muscular surface roots. As hard as I try to
create convincing, natural curves in my own landscape designs, nature seems to
take to the task with a elegant grace I can only dream of.
Fall is just around the corner. That means that Santa Barbara's somewhat
lackluster attempt at autumn leaves is also on the way. But it's hard to beat
persimmon trees for reliable bursts of orange fruit and foliage as the colder
weather approaches. I'm not sure I want to trade cleaning up the fallen mushy
fruit for the color shot, but I wouldn't mind if my next-door neighbor planted one in
my line of sight.
This morning's alarm fired at the unspeakably obscene hour of 4 AM. Lin had a
flight to LA and I got to play chauffeur. There was no time to brew a cuppa, so on
the way back into town, Biff the Wonder Spaniel and I took a stroll up an all-but-
deserted State Street, hoping to find Peet's door open (It was!). iPhone always at
the ready, we passed Anthropologie's ever-intriguing window display.
I leave you with this bit of artistic beauty and ask that you keep my softer side
in mind in a few weeks when I will slather this page with unspeakably disturbing
images of butchered, tortured, innocent plants.
And if I might borrow a classic salute from anchorman Ron Burgundy, "Stay
classy, Santa Barbara!"
Billy Goodnick is a nice guy who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.
Looking for design ideas and cool plants? Subscribe to Billy's e-mail newsletter by dropping him a line at
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