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Deck The Halls, Forget The Holly
updated: Dec 24, 2011, 9:15 AM

By Billy Goodnick

I'm really upset with my dearly departed mom. As much as I imagine myself an in-your-face, intolerant critic crusading for high horticultural standards, when it comes to face-to-face encounters, she raised a quietly considerate coward.

The same goes for flaunting my horticultural paradise when I post stuff on-line. It would be so tempting to pose, tongue sticking out, next to retina-dazzling hibiscus flowers while my gardening pals in the Midwest chip booger icicles from their livestock's nostrils. But I don't want to be the cause of my buddies sliding into a wintery depression as they watch their garden disappear under a blanket of black ice.

So, I'd like to delegate the flaunting to you, dear readers, knowing that, vicariously, I've played some small role in this taunting. Surely, you know some igloo-dwelling, blubber-eating peeps you'd like to agitate; someone who flaunts their flamboyant fall foliage, luscious lilacs, and redolent rhododendrons, coveted plants that don't stand a chance around here. Well, it's payback time, and here's the ammo you've been seeking.

Your Mission: Forward this Edhat blog post to them as soon as you're done reading.

I was at San Marcos Growers last week, scouting for plant palette inspiration. SMG is what heaven looks like to a garden designer: acres of plants from the diverse Mediterranean regions of the world, grown to perfection, accurately labeled with the kind of detailed information I need to make smart choices. They're strictly wholesale, so you have two choices for getting their amazing plants through your own garden gate: Find a landscape professional (gardener, contractor, designer) to take you for a spin in one of their electric flatbed carts (it's like going to Trader Joe's when you're really hungry). Or, ask your favorite independently owned local nursery to order plants for you. Before you visit, check out their searchable database to find plants that suit your needs. You can search using a range of characteristics (size, sun exposure, water needs, etc.) to narrow down your choices.

Here are a few amazing plants that caught my eye and will be finding their way into a mid-20th century, Hollywood vibe garden I'm designing right now. These are decidedly exotic looking plants, many of them falling into the no-care succulent category. Perhaps this is your year to stretch the envelope and add some pizzazz to your own beds?

Yucca ‘Bright Star' - There are some yuccas that give the rest of the genus a bad name, achieving massive proportion and often looking like an impenetrable rat's nest. Not so, Yucca ‘Bright Star', a brilliantly colored punctuation mark that tops out at only two-feet tall, and spreads about four feet wide. Normally, I'd use this plant as a single accent, providing high contrast to wine-colored fountain grass or chocolaty New Zealand flax. But seeing them grouped en masse at the nursery has me thinking about offering it a starring role as a ground cover.

Aeonium ‘Voodoo' - Oo, oooo! I know, I know! What about mixing up a slew of Bright Star and this sensuously colored Aeonium? Imagine this otherwordly head turner standing five feet tall behind those golden ninja throwing stars? Both of these plants prefer minimal watering and well-drained soil, so steer clear of heavy clay, or plant them on a bit of a mound. Extra bonus: Aeonium sends out a long yellow spear-like flower, offering another dose of yellow in this two-plant killer combo.

Agave ‘Shark Skin' - Your gardening pals probably don't see a lot of sharks in the waters of the Great Lakes, nor are they likely to have much luck with this crisp and clean agave when the temperature dips below 20-degrees. What I love about this symmetrical, muscular succulent is its diminutive scale, growing only three feet high and spreading to about four feet. But I recommend you give it more room, since this prolific performer sends out "pups" from the base, eventually creating a colony of chalky gray, black margin offspring. Warning - make sure the area where you start a grouping is weed free. The last thing you want to do is impale yourself hunting down the evil runners of Bermuda grass that haven't given up the fight.

Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire' - I've been seeing Red Pencil Tree showing up in lots of gardens and big pots lately. This plant isn't for the timid, looking more like a coral reef inhabitant than a garden guest. The color isn't the easiest to work with - keep it at least three zip codes away from soft pastel shades of lavender, pink, and blue, or it will overpower them. Instead, I amplify its heat by combining it with brown, rust, and golden hues. It grows taller than wide, topping out at eight feet high, so set it in the mid- or background of a focal point bed. Warning - like other plants in the Euphorbia genus, its milky sap is an irritant you'll want to keep off your skin and away from your eyes.

Synadenium compactum var. rubrum - As long was we're introducing goofy looking Euphorbias, meet African Milk Bush (do not mix with Nestle's Quik!). Like Sticks on Fire, it's an upright growing shrub, but quickly tops out at twelve feet tall, takes sun or light shade, and needs very little water. I'll be using it as an emphatic vertical punch in the back of a tropical looking bed, counting on variations in foliage color (green and red combo on top, burgundy below) to add visual texture. Though it might briefly lose its leaves in a cold snap, the cylindrical stems will still provide interest.

As for instilling a dose of envy in your cool clime chums, now it's time to copy the URL for this post and paste it into an e-mail for your pals. Then blast it out, but let them know that despite the horticultural opportunities in our coastal paradise, the economy sucks out here, too. I mean, they're welcome to visit and swipe their Visa card in our shops and restaurants. Then remind them that back home there are cherry trees to cherish and peonies to praise. As the saying goes, "The other man's Parthenocissus tricuspidata is always greener (except in October, when the leaves turn a blazing shade of red, then fall away leaving behind a tracery of fine stems)"…or something like that.

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

Bonus Tip #1
If you're live in the inland part of the county and want to help a fabulous group of folks, the Santa Ynez Valley Botanic Garden Foundation is looking for an intern [unpaid] to assist with garden design, maintenance, and administration activities for a total of 10 hrs. per month starting in January. Contact Puck Erickson at cpe@arcadiastudio.com to find out more.

Bonus Tip #2
I recently signed on with SBCoupons.com to offer great discounts on a range of my garden design coaching services: customized plant lists, personalized shopping adventures at wholesale prices, and help for newcomers and new home buyers to figure out what's what. Click and download a coupon for the service that's right for you.

Bonus Tip #3
My free Through the Green Gate Adult Ed class starts Monday, January 23 and runs for six weeks, ending with a half-day tour of gorgeous local gardens. Learn to design like a pro. Click here to learn more and sign up.

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

 COMMENT 243510 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-12-24 12:30 PM

OK, Billy, I dutifully sent your blurb to my cousin in Chicago. And I have 3 of the plants you show: both of the euphorbias and the aeonium. Glad to know what they are called. There is a great specimen of euphorbia on the SBCC campus, near the ladies locker room. It is not the reddish one, but it's awesome anyway.


 COMMENT 243535 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-12-24 03:44 PM

Putting my NorthState blubber down long enough to thank you for the nice photos, sir. I am missing my green E. tirucalli which got over eight feet in Grover Beach, protected by a garage wall, but got "frost-pruned" every year until the top was quite bushy.


 ELROJO agree helpful negative off topic

2011-12-25 07:19 AM

Billy, you are SO BAD and funny, no hilarious, all at the same time. Keep up your joyfull work for all of us, please.


 COMMENT 243664 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-12-26 08:41 AM

great weather 90% of the time, except when the brush fires aren't rolling through the hills


 COMMENT 243889 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-12-27 08:06 AM

I believe I read that the San Marcos Growers property will, unfortunately, be developed in the near future.


 COMMENT 243920P agree helpful negative off topic

2011-12-27 09:27 AM

The County of Santa Barbara is in the process of completing its Goleta Valley Community Plan Update. This process has not been completed but it has listed the San Marcos Growers property with the designation of "urban agriculture" and there are currently no plans to develop the San Marcos Growers property. In the process of developing the plan, the county has been identifying properties in the area suitable for housing and the San Marcos Growers property was at one time considered for this, but ultimately was left as "urban agriculture". One nearby property that was identified for future housing was the Santa Barbara School District's Tatum Property, located directly to the north of San Marcos Growers – between the nursery and the railroad tracks and Highway 101. Though identified as a possible location for affordable housing, there are no approved plans for development of the Tatum Property.


 BILLY GOODNICK agree helpful negative off topic

2011-12-27 10:05 AM

243920P: Thanks for the quick rumor control. Would hate to see SUVs parked where those Yucca 'Bright Star' are busy knocking my socks off.


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