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Billy’s 2010 Not-So-Beautiful Awards
updated: Sep 11, 2010, 10:00 AM

By Billy Goodnick

Dateline: Dallas, TX, Wednesday, September 8, 2010

I'm sitting in room 511 at the Hyatt Regency, air conditioning set at a comfortable 72° while the remnants of Tropical Depression Hermine blow through. This is the week I attend the annual symposium for the Garden Writers Association, a professional organization dedicated to communicating the beauty of gardens in words, pictures, television and interpretive dance (good, you're paying attention).

I'm paralyzingly freaked out about the hot, muggy weather ahead. I spent much of last year's symposium touring gardens in Raleigh, North Carolina, feeling like a wet sponge in a microwave oven. At the end of the conference they announced that this year we'd be in Dallas, where it would be "hot, hot, hot! But it's a dry heat." Sure, and armadillo road kill tastes like truffles.

I tell myself that I'm just delaying the inevitable, but for now I have a good excuse for not leaving this vegetable crisper of a room: Ed needs this article by noon, tomorrow.

Why Now?

September is when Santa Barbara Beautiful gives out their annual awards for exemplary architecture, landscaping, public art and signs. Since 2008, I've been giving out my own Santa Barbara Not-So-Beautiful Awards to help balance the ledger. Aside from the delirious endorphin rush I get from taking sarcastic shots at the f'ugliness that some people pass off as gardening, I also seek to enlighten readers to a better, smarter path that leads to more sustainable landscaping.

Category I: The Sisyphus Award

He's the mythological dude who spent his entire life (including federal holidays when lots of people get three day weekends) pushing a big muthuh of a boulder up Mount Ararat, only to have it roll back to the bottom, ad nauseum.

That's what's going on in this Chapala Street parkway strip near my house. Like clockwork, the plant janitor teaches the plants who's the boss, after which the lantana flips him the single digit salute and grows back to its intended size.

On the bright side, someone is getting a paycheck and putting shoes on their kid's feetsies for this perpetual dance. On the dark side, it looks really stupid. If you want to grow lantana (or any other woody ground cover that grows four feet across) in a narrow planter, space them four feet apart and at least two feet from the edges. They'll actually end up looking like plants and you won't be in a perpetual, fruitless struggle.

Category II: Why Bother?

Let's say you have a beautiful wall and foundation. You certainly don't want a bunch of dense junipers messing up your chance of landing the cover of Fine Gardening Magazine. Better to gently and artistically go at them with a carrot peeler, leaving only a wafer thin hint of mint green foliage to contrast the lemony stucco.

This type of hackery brings slow death for most plants, so at least there'll be an end to the visual blight. The upper foliage will gradually shade out what's left of the undergrowth, until there won't be enough leaf surface to photosynthesize the food the plant needs. When that inevitable day comes, perhaps they'll do something clever and train a vine up the dead trunks.

Category III: Knock, Knock, Knockin' On Heaven's Door

Calling Dr. Kevorkian. Myoporum laetum was once a mainstay of big hedges around these parts, but today it's almost a thing of the past. Myoporum thrips (aka Klambothrips myopori, a tiny rasping, sucking insect, distantly related to Donald Trump) have been dumping a major can of whoop-ass on this species of Myoporum since the pest was discovered in SoCal in 2005. Folks have been trying eradicating it with various sprays, and there was a glimmer of hope that an effective predator would ride in wearing a white hat. But there's no happy ending in sight.

Thrips or not, I'm trying to figure out why someone saw fit to plant this potentially view-blocking behemoth at an intersection; and in front of a stop sign, no less. It appears that someone has been hacking away at this bad boy for years, just to keep it from being a traffic hazard and menace to kids, canines and cars. Now that it exudes all the charm of a necrotic warthog, how about bribing a UPS driver to "accidently" take shortcut over the curb?

Category IV: Best Use Of Junipers To Emulate A Musical Instrument

I'm picturing that movie scene with a Roman galley, enslaved oarsmen chained to benches, sinewy muscles glistening with sweat, propelling the warship into deadly battle, as a hippo of a man pounds out a prestissimo cadence on, um, a couple of junipers?

This one has me conflicted. High marks for imagination: A sensitive blending of spherical forms, flat planes and sinuous lines-almost Dali-esque (except they forgot melting clocks). There's certainly some craftsmanship evident.

But to what end? So much effort while the remainder of the yard looks like it needs some good lovin'. Let's do the math (anyone seen my solar powered abacus?): Maybe eight monthly shearings a year at an hour each (including clean-up), times, let's see, forever = a ridiculous amount of time.

How long would it take to cut it down and pull out the stumps? Maybe two workers, for a half-day? Replacement with a couple of dozen appropriately sized and spaced plants and a drip irrigation system to beautifully landscape the entire front yard? Five hundred bucks, max.

Lesson: Maybe you don't have this exact landmark in your yard, but I bet you're spending a lot of time doing something similar. It's smarter to start over and start right. Yes, I know. The owner loves this thing-it's like having a pet, but without the poopies. I'd be curious what the neighbor who has to look at it from across the street thinks.

Category V: Most Inventive Use Of A Shoe Horn And Astroglide

Put another way, "How many numbskulls does it take to pack five species of plants into a bed the size of an Altoid tin?" (The commercial maintenance company that attends to the medical offices caddy-corner from Goleta Cottage Hospital, at Patterson and Hollister, probably know the answer.)

Reading counterclockwise from the left (unless you've got a digital watch, in which case you're on your own):

*The gray mass, artfully shaped like a map of Vermont, is French lavender (Lavandula dentata). My observations over the past few years indicate that it's sheared so often that it never flowers.

*The crinkly-leaf stuff is statice, or sea lavender (Limonium perezii), usually planted for its purple wands of flowers, often given a second life in dried arrangements.

*Tucked into the lower corner is a juniper longing to consume the adjacent walkway and shred someone's ankles.

*Just above that is a dwarf oleander (Nerium oleander variety). I'd like to be more specific and tell you whether it's the salmon or pink variety, but once again, I haven't seen it flower, since it has to be spindled and mutilated on a regular basis, depriving it of the tip growth where flowers should sprout. Yes, I said "dwarf" oleander, but that means they self-regulate to a height of four to six feet.

*And just peeking out above the Limonium is a pair of society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea), an agapanthus cousin that is actually a very appropriate size for this bed, were it not for the oafs surrounding it. This is a perfect bad example of one-of-each-itis resulting in a visually disturbing composition and the horticultural purgatory of needless maintenance. Simple solution: Pick two types of plants and use more of each. A mass of statice (which doesn't spread aggressively) in the center and a couple of fat clumps of society garlic at the ends would be a simple, beautiful, low maintenance, water-wise solution. Purple and lavender flowers, contrasting foliage forms in exchange for occasional removal of the dead flower stalks, aka "deadheading" (a gardening term in no way attributed to Jerry Garcia).

That's it. I was going to rip La Cumbre Plaza again. They've got some hideous crap going on there, but I think I'll cool my jets and get my head around this Dallas symposium. I'm presenting a talk to my fellow garden writers about how to view gardens with a designer's eye, so they can write more stories about the places they visit. I'll be sneaking in a few photos from my Crimes Against Horticulture collection-bad examples can be just instructive as good ones.

It's a dirty job, but I love it.

For previous Not-So-Beautiful Awards:

2009 edition

2008 edition

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

 COMMENT 104294 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-09-11 10:20 AM

Thank you Billy for keeping me laughing especially while I'm learning something. Really, you're better than those guys on comedy central! It's a curious thing, a jillion gardeners in Santa Barbara but how many of them know about plants and what they need? You get my appreciation award for 2010.


 COMMENT 104299 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-09-11 10:45 AM

Brilliant. More! More!


 CHERIDIANE agree helpful negative off topic

2010-09-11 05:54 PM

I agree with everything LIFESIGHS posted. Funny, instructive, illustrated even, and true. Yeah, bring us some more. The good, the bad, the ugly.


 COMMENT 104392 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-09-11 07:58 PM

Billy -

I've decided that ALL SantaBarbarians are weather-wusses. At 74, it's toooo hot. And at 70? Tooooo cold. Trouble is, there are so so many days that fall into the narrow 'acceptable range'.

I'd show you around the Singapore Botanic Garden (40' above sea level, 100 mi north of the equator), but you'd likely wilt in our constant equatorial summer. Yet all the hotel rooms are in the 'acceptable range' - and the plants are tropically unbelievable.

Best to you, and SBBeautiful


 COMMENT 104401 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-09-11 09:07 PM

Once again, I feel we dodged a bullet and (sigh of relief) Billy didn't shoot (or shoot down) our amateur gardening efforts.


 BILLY GOODNICK agree helpful negative off topic

2010-09-11 09:40 PM

Thanks for all the swell comments. Even if I do take a shot at a reader's garden, I try not to show too much of the house to make it obvious. Lifesighs / Cheridiane: I'm glad the "take-away" makes it through. A spoonful of nitrous oxide helps the medicine go down.
Patrick - yes, you've made it through another year, but no promises for the next one. How about sending me your GPS coordinates? I promise I'll be gentle. Why not sign up for my Adult Ed class that started in a couple of weeks? 104392: Singapore, eh? That would be a nice trip, but I'm finding out very pointedly that I'm not cut out for the tropics. Maybe you could move the Singapore garden to Seattle?


 GREG agree helpful negative off topic

2010-09-12 07:42 AM

good article - thank you.


 COMMENT 104418 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-09-12 08:48 AM

I don't read articles about plants because I find them boring - my lack of botanical interest is obvious from a glance at my yard - but I just had to see if said yard was mentioned, and once I started reading I couldn't stop - very well-written, entertaining and educational article!


 BONNER agree helpful negative off topic

2010-09-12 10:22 AM

This was a goodie!!! Thanks.


 MTNDRIVER agree helpful negative off topic

2010-09-12 10:46 AM

Good grief! You've said it all, Billy. What WERE they thinking??


 COMMENT 104447 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-09-12 11:17 AM

Oh Thank you, thank you! For dealing with people that butcher trees. Remember, when they did some mechanical test and they heard the trees "screaming" ? Wish I had saved that article. Anyway, you are a hero and we love you.


 COMMENT 104454 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-09-12 12:11 PM

Great shots across the bow, Billy.

There's someothing about both the poodled junipers (do people call it that anymore?) that remind me vagurly of the animation style of Fantasia...maybe of Ivynd Earle's style?

Let's hope these people are not trying to repair their cars...


 COMMENT 104469 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-09-12 01:48 PM

I laughed so hard I cried. Thank you. "Pet without the poopies... neighbor thinks" is my personal favorite because I lived next door to THE butcher of trees for years. I still am in awe whenever I pass his house. The trunk has to be 4-5 feet in diameter, but the top (which used to be square, but is now round) is not allowed to get bigger than about 12 feet. The oddest thing is that this former neighbor's hobby is gardening. It just makes me laugh to think about it.


 COMMENT 104471 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-09-12 01:53 PM

Hey Billy, it's Sam, sbcc. Thought I'd ask if you've undertaken an interview with any of the gardening crews to see what they're doing and why, from their perspective. Maybe even start a 'little black book' of your own of the companies hired to do this... well, that may be a bit over the line, though. Something to think on. Great article, as usual.


 COMMENT 104483 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-09-12 04:28 PM

Whew!! I can only laugh AFTER I have quickly read through the "awards" to make sure nothing of mine is there... then I can go back and laugh hysterically (yes, and learn too) at this funny man!


 SARAH agree helpful negative off topic

2010-09-13 10:46 AM

Hi Billy, I just signed up for your class and I'm #26 on the waiting list. Any chance you can get a bigger room and add more students? Thanks


 COMMENT 104747 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-09-13 07:19 PM

These are pictures of the dreaded 'mow/blow/n' go' crews in SB.

Let it grow, grow grow and grow some more, then hack it back.

That's their MO.

Find a co/guy that cares - I have had a Japanese company service my lawn for the past 20 years and the place looks like Disneyland - they care.


 BILLY GOODNICK agree helpful negative off topic

2010-09-13 09:10 PM

Sarah: I checked with my folks at Adult Ed and they regret to say there are no other rooms available that evening. Looks like a few folks will be able to add the class, but it's not likely I can get everyone in. Regrets. Please try again for the winter semester. Also, I'll be teaching two design workshops in October - one at Nopalito Native Nursery in Ventura on October 9 and another at Seaside Gardens in Carp on October 23. Check their websites for more info. It's not the same as my full class, but it might help.


 SARAH agree helpful negative off topic

2010-09-15 08:54 AM

Thanks, I'll try again.


 GREENTOO agree helpful negative off topic

2010-09-15 03:58 PM

Billy, You are still in rare form! Thanks for the laughs and the off kilter view of good old S.B.. Maybe the Garden Writers will chose us sometime so they will not have to hide out in their hotel rooms.


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