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2011 Santa Barbara Not-So-Beautiful Awards
updated: Oct 01, 2011, 10:00 AM

By Billy Goodnick

Well, plant lovers, it's time to take a slug from your pretty, pink, Pepto-Bismol pitcher and turn your attention to this year's installment of all things awful in the local garden world.

Last weekend the generous, good-doing folks at Santa Barbara Beautiful bestowed their annual honors on designers, property owners, and big-hearted community members. The recipients are locals who lend their talent, time, and support to making our area a place of horticultural and artistic beauty.

But now it's time to turn our attention to The Dark Side, and share the goofy, "What were they thinking?" examples that have earned their own 15 minutes of shame. It's not my intent to just point a finger and say, "Ewwwwwwwwwwww". My hope is that by tossing these perpetrators into my Cuisineart of criticism, I can prevent readers from committing their own crimes against horticulture, and quite possibly become proud honorees at future award events.

This time around I'm sharing tales of bondage, cartoon character simulations, math-challenged manglers, and will explain why I think the City of Santa Barbara has some ‘splainin' to do.

Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (with apologies to Pedro Almodovar)

One of my favorite go-to plants is Myer's Asparagus (Asparagus densiflora ‘Myers'). I love its soft texture, cheery chartreuse color, and eerie resemblance to Sideshow Bob's hair. It grows in partial shade or full sun, and en masse, creates a softly sculptural effect. Place it near dark, broadleaf foliage, like this pairing with bear's breech (Acanthus mollis), below, at Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden, and you've got a study in subtle contrasting foliage.

So what were they thinking over at Ahi Restaurant on upper State Street? Who came up with the clever idea of using the nylon string the delivery guy uses to keep the LA Times from scattering to put these plants in kinky S&M restraints? Kudos to Ahi for trying to enhance a boring white wall, but do they think we wouldn't notice the passive restraints? I'm sad to announce that the horsetail reed (Equisetum hyemale) that played a central role in this threesome has since passed on (probably forgot the safe word). Dudes, if some of the frilly fronds are in your way, it's a simple snip to cut them at soil level and let the rest of this delightful plant dance its graceful dance.

Math-Challenged Gardener

My first thought when I saw this Eugenia hedge was, "Where's John Cleese, and why didn't use his Stanley 30-foot PowerLock measuring tape?" I'm referring to my all-time favorite scene from Monty Python's Holy Grail, when Cleese appears as the French soldier taunting King Arthur from high atop the parapet wall: "Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries!"

I don't think there's much more to say about this. If you're trying to create an architectural effect with your plants, it might be a good idea to carve out equally sized masses and spaces. While you're at it, buy a bubble level and flatten the flat parts. This is just silly, lazy, and makes my eyes hurt.

Where's The Pita?

I have nothing against Argentineans, but I so wish they had kept their Pampas Grass (Cortaderia selloana) in the southern hemisphere. Actually, it wasn't their fault. Rumor has it the plant was introduced as a commercial crop to make plumes for hats. This mass of grass found the growing conditions on our area just right, started blowing around and promiscuously reseeding (one plant can produce hundreds of thousands of viable seed), and has since become a very serious invasive weed. (Drive up the Big Sur coast and see the havoc it has wrought in coastal native plant communities.)

Giving the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the owner of this parkway doesn't realize the environmental benefits of totally removing the plant, thereby preventing it from becoming the scourge of this Goleta neighborhood. As suggested by their shearing technique, perhaps they harbor a secret desire to work in a Greek deli, artistically shaving wafer-thin slices of meat into pita pockets and drizzling them with savory tzatziki sauce.

Folks, it's time to finish the dangerous deed (the razor-sharp leaf edges are the stuff of a Dexter episode). Cut it to the ground, pick up a pick or hire a backhoe operator (or call in a napalm strike), but please make it go away. For the rest of you, if Pampas, or any of the other invasive species that are polluting our surroundings, has taken a foothold on your land, please consider 100% eradication.

Gimme Shelter

As long as we're handing out awards, I'd like to thank the maintenance crews at La Cumbre Plaza for consistently giving me fuel for my rantings. Who else but these artistes would think to shape bougainvilleas into a series of exquisitely proportioned awnings?

My guess is someone who didn't consider that bougainvillea isn't a delicate vine that gracefully cascades from on high. They probably thought it would be nice to soften the dull gray concrete block wall with a burst of color. Great idea, until you realize that bougies are vigorous, woody thickets genetically programmed to sprawl through, climb over, and smother everything in their way. And once you

commit to shaping them into cherry-red bonbons, there's no turning back. I'd love to know how many hours of labor go into one round of trimming. Talk about your job security.

"I Told You So, I Told You So, I Told You So"

I thought that writing this subheader would make me feel better, but I can still feel the pounding in my carotids. At the end of 2010, I kvetched about the sad state of landscaping connected to many city-owned properties, and the jarring disconnect between the City's claims of sustainability and the unconscionable waste of resources and staff time when it comes to public landscaping. (Read Billy's Lament.)

On the one hand, the city charter compels the design review boards (ABR and HLC) to assure that every new project, public or private, is landscaped, regardless of whether the owner has the resources to maintain it after the ribbon cutting hoopla subsides. On the other hand, budgets are hemorrhaging, staffing continues to be slashed, and new landscaping dies a slow, predictable death.

Your tax dollars at work.

Carrillo Hill

A few years ago, when I was still gainfully employed as the City's landscape architect, I encountered the collision between logic and desire. New sidewalks were being planned up Carrillo Hill and down Meigs Road, with the laudable goal of making Santa Barbara a more walkable town. (No allowance in the plan for oxygen masks, base camps, or Sherpas). But here comes the Architectural Board of Review assuring that the narrow strips along the sidewalk be landscaped. Never mind that there was no source of permanent irrigation - that would be a budget buster. Instead, they'd pay the installer thousands of dollars to hand-water for a year, then let Darwin have his way.

Loma Alta Drive

The same approach was used for the Loma Alta Drive sidewalks connecting the Lower Westside with the Mesa, and which offer my favorite view of the city and Pacific.

Well guess what? In a couple of years' time, they've turned into hopelessly dead, weed infested, gopher plagued monuments to waste and wishful thinking. I told them so. I sat with the city engineers and told them this was an exercise in futility. They agreed, then threw up their hands and said, "We have to landscape. ABR isn't allowed to let us slide."

So here you go: acres of dead plants, mulch, and weeds -- the default for any project that throws logic, horticulture, and fiscal responsibility to the wind.

City staff, City Council, aspiring candidates: If you're so hot on being a sustainable city, fix this unconscionable conflict between expectations and the current fiscal realities.

The Original Crime Against Horticulture

People ask me where my obsession with these bizarre botanical bombasts began (as well as my annoying addiction to alliteration). Hell if I know, but my editor at Fine Gardening always reminds me to start a new section with a good transition sentence and that last one was fun to write.

It's probably a combination of being a smartass and realizing that there's as much to be learned by observing bad examples as from good ones. I think these next three shots chronicle the instigating incident.

About a dozen years ago, I watched dumbfounded as a landscaper installed scores of little Cotton Lavender plants (Santolina chamaecyparisus) twelve inches from each other, and four inches from the sidewalk. Big mistake: Left alone, this plant grows about three feet across. Below, you see a good example of how to space Santolina - there are only four plants, spaced to account for their mature size without colliding into their neighbors. The plants look relaxed, naturally cloudlike, and require no trimming.

But here's what they did. I guess they wanted the planter to fill in quickly, and little plants are cheap, so hey, let's get crazy.

I omitted a few interim photos of tormented plants forming a brown wall of dead sticks from mercilessly shearing them at sidewalk's edge. The easy solution must have escaped the gardener and owner: As the plants mature and pile up, remove the ones closest to the sidewalk and take out some of the interior conflicts, letting the remainder expand to their normal size. Then put your hedge trimmers back on the truck and leave them there.

Too simple. After two years of watching this mess get worse and worse, this next scene just stopped me cold in my tracks.

Not only did their visionary gardener have the inspiration to outline and define each plant so the owner could take an accurate inventory, but managed to pay homage to Marge Simpson's hair stylist.

:: :: :: :: :: ::

I'm sure that 2012 will fill my camera's memory card with hundreds of new crimes against horticulture. Just heed these lessons and there's a good chance you won't be featured in the next installment of my Santa Barbara Not So Beautiful Awards.

Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)

 COMMENT 218883 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-10-01 11:00 AM

You seem a little bitter about not working for the city anymore and I think it shows in your critcism. I thought the LaCumbre Plaza bogy looked great. I also think that the weed laden carillo hill looks 100 times better then before. I would guess you know that most of these places are being kept up by guys making minimum wage with no training. Maybe show up and coach these people and pass on some of that great knowledge you have.


 COMMENT 218913 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-10-01 12:55 PM

Maybe it would be a good use of time and community resources to organize a donation of drought tolerant succulents to fill those city walks.

Seems you, Billy, have the inside knowledge on the walks and your knowledge of the plants/design could be put to use by asking for community plant and labor donations to fix those weedy walks.


 COMMENT 218921P agree helpful negative off topic

2011-10-01 01:36 PM

I believe Billy addressed the issue of weeds in another installment awhile back. The City no longer allows the spraying of weeds, is that correct? With the skeleton crew that is currently in place to "maintain" parks, medians, planters, etc. you had better get used to seeing weeds around town unless someone would like to volunteer time to go and pull them.


 COMMENT 218969P agree helpful negative off topic

2011-10-01 06:23 PM

Thank you, Billy! I agree with you, especially about the bougainvillea at La Cumbre.

I have spent much time in Europe where the bougainvillea is allowed to grow in its natural state. The plant adds wonderful natural beauty, grows in direct sun and is drought tolerant. Why murder it and spend countless hours turning it into something it was never intended to be in the first place. This ridiculous propensity to carve these hardy and colorful free spirits into some bizarre geometric shape is simply offensive and ignorant.

The last shot of the lavender or sage that has been been turned into mounded lumps of some kind is just sickening. Perhaps this is the work of an Edward Scissorhands wannabe. Naaah, he was far more talented and would have at least attempted something interesting.

My god, what is with the butchering of plants around town.

Thanks for your comments. You have a far more positive outlook than I would if I wrote about the plant butchery I see around town.

Keep up the good work.


 COMMENT 218995P agree helpful negative off topic

2011-10-01 09:18 PM

Meh, it's green, natural and foliage. I'd much rather see something in "poor taste" or sightly overgrown than a concrete jungle. I think I can understand the irritation about these things in the context that the person pointing them out as "ugly" has a passion for landscaping.

But otherwise, I have to say my opinion is that this is sort of silly to call bad landscaping out.


 COMMENT 219002 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-10-02 05:31 AM

Billy, thanks for the great read, thought provoking and fun! You make great points and you must have a wonderful photo file! My favorite was the John Cleese hedge reminder!


 COMMENT 219005 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-10-02 06:48 AM

It seems to me Billy is bitter about telling the city what would happen if they did some of the projects their way, it would turn into a big mess and no one listened to him. Not so much not working for them anymore. Thanks for pointing this stuff out. Makes one wonder how much tax money was wasted for instant gratification instead of long term beauty.


 COMMENT 219014P agree helpful negative off topic

2011-10-02 07:32 AM

Thanks Billy for pointing out yet another colossal waste of taxpayer dollars that has become a blight on the community. I don't care how drought tolerant a plant may be, it's gonna die if not maintained. If any one thinks drought tolerant or even native means low or no maintenance, they are mistaken. Trust me as some one with yard full of it. The needs are different, but there are needs indeed. And spending money to plant something, anything, only to have it die just so you can have something there and later (and this case much later) having to tear it up and replace it is a waste of time, dollars and resources.

Oh and the bougainvillea looks absolutely stupid. Love the Monty Python hedge. Are we sure John Cleese didn't do it himself? The owner needs his own taunting.


 ARCHIE agree helpful negative off topic

2011-10-02 08:36 AM

YIKES! But thanks, Billy, for indicating what is right by showing what is wrong. (Only wish you had a sense of humor.) smile.


 COMMENT 219029 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-10-02 08:44 AM

Billy, I laughed out loud several times and I agree with you wholeheartedly about the city. As a long time local I've seen first hand, so many of the dumb-a** mistakes this city has made. Remember the lower State st. slippery tile debacle? Hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of dollars and they had to tear it out and put in brick because too many people slipped and fell and it was just flat out dangerous, especially if it was wet. Oh, there are so many more! Why don't they just research and listen before spending and doing? GREAT article! LOVE your writing. Thanks for the giggles.


 COMMENT 219030 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-10-02 08:45 AM

Re: shearing and shaping like a demented shepherd: We want cheap labor to keep our paradaisical landscaping in check,but not the cultural values that come with it. The framigo wielding his techno-toothed scimitar undoubtedly is very proud of his accomplishment, adding a bit of perfection to our otherwise listless landscape. The challenge of creating forms not found in nature's palette is a testament to desire to contribute something meaningful to a complacent public.

How about an article on native(define native), drought tolerant, low/no maintenance landscaping that typifies the look of SB.That's what most of us want.


 COMMENT 219040 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-10-02 09:00 AM

Hey Billy,

come join our local kink group.


 COMMENT 219066 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-10-02 10:39 AM

Loma Alta: forget the landscaping, it's a minor problem. The 'improvements' have attracted more pedestrians and bike-riders to a street that is too narrow to begin with, has a sheer drop with inadequate railings, and no bike lane. Little children walk within inches of vehicles, and drivers are not always inclined to wait until it's safe to pass a bike. Loma Alta is an attractive nuisance - and the city needs to address the danger before a walker or bike-rider is killed.


 COMMENT 219230 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-10-02 08:11 PM

very funny, Billy. thanks.


 FLICKA agree helpful negative off topic

2011-10-02 09:33 PM

I have drought tolerant plants; aloes, grasses, native sage and others I don't know the names of (I get slips from friends). They do fine with no water. Some of the smaller ones need water on ocassion if you want them to look "Kodak perfect" but can make it from rain to rain, and perk up beautifully. As far as native plants go---do you think the Chumash or Spanish settlers watered natives? "Native" means they live on rain.


 BILLY GOODNICK agree helpful negative off topic

2011-10-03 11:20 AM

A few quick replies to all these comments: First, thanks to those who actually understood what my position is about the city projects. I have no bitterness about not working for them anymore. The 22 years I spent were both fulfilling and frustrating, but there’s no way I’d want to take another shot at it. The main issue is the conflicts within the system that lead down a black hole. A waste of good people’s time (I have nothing but admiration for all the staff I’ve worked with all those years – top notch, despite what some folks assume about “the government” and those who work to keep your water faucets flowing, streets working, restrooms working, you get the idea.)

As for Flicka, drought tolerant is fine and it’s the way I try to go in all my designs, but drought tolerance is meaningless for the first few years until the plants are established. True native landscapes generally don’t fair well in suburban conditions, nor would most people want to live around a purely wild landscape. About those Chumash cultivation practices, I’m ignorant on that one, but I can assure you that the aqueduct the Spaniards created for the missions were used to cultivate crops that would not have survived just on natural rainfall. “Native” doesn’t necessarily mean they survive just on rainfall. Some plants need more, which is why they populate wetlands, creeksides, etc.

219040 – Thanks for the invitation to join your “kink” group. I sing “You Really Got Me” in my band, King Bee, and I love Ray Davies and the band.

As for donating my time to organize a group of volunteers to weed, I’m currently employed on eight fronts, writing, teaching two classes about sustainable design, consulting, playing music and working on a book. I worked with volunteer groups for 22 years with the city, and it’s not as simple as it sounds. Great enthusiasm on the front end, then zip. Volunteerism has to come from within the neighborhood and there’s nothing sexy about pulling weeds along a busy street. The bottom line is that the project was conceived with no concern for survival.

There’s really no fixing it now – witness the deep layers of mulch that are being dumped in hopes of smothering the weeds. And they’ve all gone to seed, rather than having the sense to cut them back when they were young and before the seed heads were viable.

Gotta run. Class to teach tonight at SBCC. I'm working to ge... [ more ]


 COMMENT 245358 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-01-02 02:17 PM

It never ceases to amaze me how some people are so intent on creating plantings that are not only unattractive...but insanely labor-intensive as well!


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