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I’m Sick of These Plants
updated: Aug 14, 2010, 10:00 AM

By Billy Goodnick

Landscape designers can get a little full of themselves, me included. We know so many more plants than you do and can recite polysyllabic botanical names like Parthenocissus tricuspidata without coming up for air.

Discovering a cool, new Heuchera with crinkled, copper-colored leaves and chartreuse polka dots is like a crack head's deep toke smacking the brain with a dopamine two-by-four. Then comes the roller coaster ride - cosmic sensations of euphoria and empowerment, then the inevitable crushing crash. The story endlessly repeats as we find ourselves down some sketchy alley, peering over the nursery wall, scouting our next fix.

The trouble is, some of the shiny new plants designers get all throbby about haven't been around long enough to reliably know what happens ten years down the line.

Sometimes it's safer to work with the plants we see every day. There's a reason they're so damn ubiquitous. They're everywhere because they'll grow anywhere, whether you're a Master Gardener or a nursery newbie.

Sure, I would love to design every project as an artistic and botanical adventure, but that's not realistic. For many clients, it is preferable to create a garden filled with common, but thriving plants that require minimal resources, than to create a short-lived masterpiece of exotica that demands constant life-support.

My first job when I moved to Santa Barbara in the 70s was at La Sumida Nursery's flagship store on upper State Street. 40 years later that location is shuttered, but I know that a lot of the same plants I sold back then are still in service in local gardens.

I motored out to the Patterson Avenue La Sumida Nursery to see if anything has changed, and struck up a conversation with Kevin Gibson, a nurseryman with many years in the business. Kevin is a pragmatist and although he calls them "been there, done that plants," he also says, "There's a reason we see so many of these everywhere - they work."

If I described an unexciting, cookie-cutter, done-that plant palette to another designer, I'd use the shorthand of "nothing but rhaphs, agapanthus and gazania" and they'd know just what I mean. Let's start with those…

You can't throw a garden gnome with a broken arm and not hit some form of Indian hawthorne (Rhaphiolepis indica). Its varieties and cultivars range from the massive R. ‘Majestic Beauty' that eventually achieves treelike proportions, to R. i. ‘Ballerina', topping out at barely 2 feet and spreading 4 feet wide. With the exception of a few white-flowering varieties (R. i. ‘Clara' is the most common), rhaphs come in varying shades of pink.

They thrive in full sun but can tolerate partial shade, though they won't flower as prolifically. You might find a few aphids on the flower buds in early spring, but that's no big deal - hose them off or wait for the hungry, good bugs. Otherwise, rhaphs are pretty much pest-free and need only a little water once established.

Pleeeeease don't shear these guys into meatloaves or floating discs! Start smart by picking the right size plant for the space you have, not one that will overrun its limits. If it needs a little shaping, just pinch or snip the tip growth right after the plant finishes flowering.

Some rhaphs bloom sporadically throughout the year, but by summertime they're pretty much just a green bush -- a neutral backdrop for the rest of your garden. Though not particularly showy, most varieties produce dark-purple berries. You might see a few bright crimson leaves here and there when cold weather comes.

You can get sick of Lily-of-the-Nile (Agapanthus species), with its showy blue or white flowers but I can't do without them. When summer arrives, gardens explode with spherical clusters of small, funnel-shaped flowers balanced on fleshy green stalks. No longer are we limited to the big, honkin' A. praecox orientalis of yesteryear, with its 4 to 5 foot stalks. Hybridizers have been messing with Agapanthus with great results. Look for mini-versions like ‘Peter Pan' or deep violet-blue forms like ‘Storm Cloud'. Others have white striped leaves that brighten a garden bed after the flowers fade.

If snails set up housekeeping in the moist, dark spaces under the plants, apply Sluggo, a pet-safe product available at Sumida's and most local nurseries.

I remember Gazania daisies from my childhood in LA's San Fernando Valley. Leisure summer afternoons were spent on the front lawn, slowly dismembering the orange, rust and brown-striped petals from the fleshy stems. Gazanias come in two basic categories - clumping and trailing. (I think that's self-explanatory.) Most gazanias have flowers in the warm color range - yellow, gold, orange, rust - with a few types pushing into the reddish-purple range. These South African perennial ground covers require occasional summer irrigation and grow in soils enriched with organic compost or in lean, unamended soils - they don't seem to care. The trailing type looks great spilling over a wall and their tolerance for salt spray makes them practical in coastal areas.

I bitch and moan about people shoving bougainvillea (Bougainvillea species) into absurdly small spaces, but I don't hate the plant. Bougies can't be beat for explosions of summer color. From virginal white through gold, pink and sultry lipstick-red, it puts on a helluva show.

I love the plant. However, I also understand and respect the unalterable genetic programming that compels bougainvillea to spread near and far, smothering entire zip codes like in a 50s sci-fi movie.

Now pay attention! These are your horticultural Miranda rights: Left alone, the majority of bougies will grow into a thicket at least 10 feet tall by 20 feet wide - some brutes get much bigger. Even the purportedly well-behaved B. ‘Rosenka', with its showy pinkish-orangey bracts (the colorful "flower" is actually a modified, papery leaf surrounding a small white flower in the center - take a look sometime) gets really big. The park crews frequently pull out a chainsaw to tame the beautiful bougie hedge at Alice Keck.

Here's a picture of one humping the Lobero Building near Santa Barbara's main post office.

See what I told you? In the words of a recent president, don't misunderestimate bougainvillea.

If you're thinking of planting some on a fence or over an arbor, do not expect it to daintily wander about. Prepare to mount a perpetual state of war with this viciously hooked thorn-monster.

I crack up when I see massive blocks of heavily sheared bougainvillea in a too-small space. I'd bet a week's pay that someone chose that bougainvillea because of the pretty flowers. The joke is that usually there aren't any - just green leaves, sticks and thorns. Why? Because bougainvillea blooms on its new tip growth, all of which gets sheared off, raked up and hauled away (hopefully, to be recycled). Sounds like a job for Sisyphus.

The moral? Think before you plant, and don't say I didn't warn you.

To Be Continued…

I'm already at 1111 words and that's probably all that Ed's, your and my attention spans can handle. I still want to talk about a few more of the hardest working plants in the garden, so mark your calendar and check in again in two weeks (that'd be Sunday, August 29). I'll fill you in on the love/hate relationship I have with some of our area's most dependable but hackneyed plants.

Before You Go, Watch Me On PBS

You are invited to watch me on Growing A Greener World; a PBS sustainable landscaping TV show, hosted by Joe Lamp'l. He and his co-hosts, Garden Girl Patti Moreno, and Chef Nathan Lyons, have been traveling around the country, visiting homes, farms, community gardens, parks and the people who are providing enlightened environmental stewardship through horticulture and gardening. It's inspiring and sprinkled with great do-it-yourself tips and cooking ideas, too.

Joe has a great sense of fun, so when he started planning his episode about pruning, he figured it would be a hoot to have me on the show for a live-action version of my Crimes Against Horticulture schtick. We rendezvoused in LA in June and ran around in front of the cameras all morning, filming the bizarre things that happen when the wrong plant goes in the wrong place. The show airs on Blue Ridge PBS (I'm sorry to say the show hasn't been picked up by KCET yet), then moves to the Growing A Greener World website on Saturday, August 14. Look for Episode #114. I haven't seen a preview, but I'm told there are some fun out-takes during the closing titles, so hang on to the bitter end.

See you in two weeks.


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