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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 horticulture.

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 sustainable design.

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 the Pacific?

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. 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!"


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